WASHINGTON (AP) — As incomes in China have grown in the last decade, so has China’s appetite for beef. No longer out of reach for China’s middle class, beef now sizzles in home woks and restaurant kitchens.
China has become the world’s biggest importer of beef, and Brazil is China’s biggest supplier, according to United Nations Comtrade data. More beef moves from Brazil to China than between any other two countries.
But the Brazilian cattle industry is a major driver of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Data analysis by The Associated Press and the Rainforest Investigations Network, a nonprofit reporting consortium, found that a little-known American company is among the key suppliers and distributors feeding China’s hunger for beef – and the Amazon deforestation that it fuels.
The world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon plays a critical role in the global climate by absorbing carbon emissions. A new study published this week in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences linked Amazon deforestation to warmer regional temperatures.
Salt Lake City-based Parker-Migliorini International, better known as PMI Foods, has been a major beneficiary of the beef trade between Brazil and China. PMI has shipped more than $1.7 billion in Brazilian beef over the last decade – more than 95% of it to China, according to data from Panjiva, a company that uses customs records to track international trade. Over the last decade, Chinese beef imports have surged sixfold, U.N. Comtrade data shows, and PMI has helped satisfy China’s growing demand.
As a middleman that has been one of the leading importers of Brazilian beef to China, PMI provides a window into how that growing international trade is driving deforestation.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.
Holly Gibbs, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies land use changes linked to the beef industry, says that PMI has contributed to the Amazon’s destruction, because it sources beef from companies that purchase cows raised on deforested land.
Last year, the Brazilian Amazon lost more than 4,000 square miles (10,360 square kilometers) of rainforest, the equivalent of nearly 3,000 soccer fields each day, according to a January report by Imazon, a Brazilian research group that uses satellite monitoring to track deforestation.
More than two-thirds of deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon has been converted to cattle pastures, according to Brazil’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.
PMI gets more of its Brazilian beef from Sao Paulo, Brazil-based meat processing giant JBS SA than from anywhere else. In a series of reports released between 2018 and 2023, Brazilian prosecutors have determined that JBS purchased massive numbers of cattle raised on illegally deforested land. Last December, prosecutors found that JBS had bought more than 85,000 cows from ranches that engaged in illegal deforestation in Pará, one of nine states in the Brazilian Amazon. Their latest report, released October 26, found that JBS had substantially lower but still significant rates of purchases from ranches involved in environmental violations across four Amazon states.
“There’s no doubt that PMI Foods is benefiting from the deforestation of the Amazon,” Gibbs said. “They’re also helping to drive that deforestation by continuing to pay into that system.”
In an email, a PMI spokesperson said that “in a world where famine, malnutrition and acute food insecurity are a global concern, PMI is focused on feeding millions of people all over the world,” including providing meals to refugees.
PMI said it is working to strengthen environmental practices of its beef operations. “While our absolute primary priority is feeding people, we remain committed to continuous improvement of sustainability across the beef value chain,” the spokesperson said.
PMI Foods is a $3 billion global enterprise that buys and sells more than 1.6 billion pounds (725.7 million kilograms) of beef, pork, chicken, seafood and eggs each year. In the last decade, PMI Foods shipped more than $616 million of Brazilian beef from JBS, almost twice as much as from any other supplier, shipping records show.
JBS, in turn, purchased a significant share of its cattle from ranches that were illegally deforested, Brazilian prosecutors have found. These properties accounted for 15% of JBS’s cattle supply in the Amazon state of Pará from 2019 to 2020, according to an audit by prosecutors audit last December. The company’s purchases from properties linked to environmental violations decreased to 6% of its supply across four Amazon states in the following year, prosecutors found in an audit published in October.
JBS has been investigated and fined by Brazilian authorities in connection with its purchases of cattle from illegal farms, but these are separate from the audits, which are focused on improving company practices.
JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, asserts that it has fixed the problems identified in previous audits by prosecutors. In a statement, JBS said it has a “zero-tolerance policy for illegal deforestation” in its supply chains, and is adopting block chain technology to include vetting of indirect suppliers by 2025.
Yet as recently as last fall, JBS admitted to a large-scale purchase of cattle raised on illegally deforested land. Following an investigation by Repórter Brasil, a contributor to the Rainforest Investigations Network, JBS acknowledged it had illegally bought nearly 9,000 cattle from a rancher whom Brazilian authorities have described as “one of the biggest deforesters in the country.” The rancher, Chaules Volban Pozzebon, is now serving a 70-year prison sentence for offenses including leading a criminal gang.
PMI also buys in large volume from Brazil’s second largest meat processor, Marfrig, which has been dogged as well by reports by environmental groups and news outlets alleging that it purchased cattle from ranches that were involved in illegal deforestation. In February 2022, the Inter-American Development Bank scrapped a $200 million loan to Marfrig amid criticism of the company’s environmental record. In September, the Swiss food multinational Nestlé dropped Marfrig as a beef supplier in Brazil following media reports last year that Marfrig had bought cattle raised on land that was seized from indigenous peoples.
Marfrig said in an email that the ranch cited in last year’s reports was on land that had not yet been designated protected indigenous territory. Marfrig did not face legal penalties in connection with the case. The company said it has a “rigorous livestock sourcing policy” that uses satellite monitoring to avoid suppliers linked to deforestation.
Asked about its leading suppliers, JBS and Marfrig, buying cattle raised on deforested or illegally seized lands, PMI said it requires its suppliers to follow local laws, and depends on government environmental agencies in Brazil and elsewhere to enforce them. “PMI relies on the assurances set forth in the sustainability policies of its suppliers,” a company spokesman said in an email.
For its part, Brazil’s Environment Ministry said independent audits have shown that major meat processors are still buying significant quantities of cattle raised on deforested land through their indirect suppliers.
“The persistence of these cases shows that the companies’ systems are flawed and there is not sufficient effort to avoid illegal purchases,” the ministry said in a statement.
The FBI Investigation
PMI Foods has come under scrutiny from U.S. authorities before for its shipments to China.
Between 2008 and 2011, PMI took in more than $289 million in revenue from illegal beef shipments to China, representing the majority of U.S.-sourced sales to the country, according to a spreadsheet produced by a whistleblower for FBI investigators.
“They were willing to break laws,” whistleblower Brandon Barrick said in an interview in 2022, referring to the time that he worked at PMI. “They were willing to do whatever it took to make a buck for themselves.”
In spring of 2014, PMI pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false statement to U.S. authorities about the destination of its beef exports and paid a $1 million fine.
In an email, PMI said it had put the “entire episode behind us” nine years ago, and emphasized that it pleaded guilty only to making a false statement. “PMI was never charged with a crime for its export operations,” said company attorney Mark Gaylord.
Rise of beef in China
In the last decade, Chinese imports of beef from Brazil have increased from $1.3 billion in 2013 to more than $8 billion in 2022, according to U.N. Comtrade data.
PMI has been a major player in feeding that growing market. As of 2017, the company was the second largest importer of Brazilian beef to China, according to a 2020 report by Trase, a research group that studies commodity supply chains.
As Brazil became China’s biggest supplier, cattle production ramped up. China imposes relatively few environmental demands on its beef importers, meaning suppliers who need land for cattle may be tempted to engage in deforestation, said Gibbs, the University of Wisconsin geography professor.
“As China’s demand for beef goes up, so does the stress on the rainforest,” Gibbs said.
Daniel Azeredo, a Brazilian federal prosecutor who has led crackdowns on illegal deforestation in the beef industry, said companies must ensure that products from the Amazon region do not come from illegally deforested land.
“Everyone who participates in the trade of products that come from the Amazon has to be able to transparently determine the products’ origin,” Azeredo said.
In response to inquiries about whether it had raised concerns about deforestation with JBS or other suppliers, PMI Foods said it “has discussions with our partners, vendors and suppliers including JBS, about always improving best practices towards the environment and sustainability.”
Middlemen avoid scrutiny
As a middleman rather than a company that raises animals or processes meat, PMI’s role in deforestation has been little examined.
PMI’s reliance on JBS is not unusual among food companies. While a handful of European retailers have dropped JBS beef products in recent years due to deforestation concerns, major American brands such as Kroger and Albertsons, the parent company of Safeway, still purchase its beef.
Albertsons confirmed that it sources beef from JBS, but said it is only a small quantity. Kroger did not respond to inquiries but its online store includes JBS beef products.
JBS, Marfrig and other top beef producers have signed pledges to work against illegal deforestation. But unlike most leading meat processors and commodity traders, PMI has not signed on to agreements to fight deforestation, such as the New York Declaration on Forests, in which endorsers commit to goals including eliminating deforestation by 2030.
Two months after initial inquiries about its environmental policies for this story, PMI said it was joining industry efforts to combat deforestation.
“We are now proud to partner with One Tree Planted, Green Business Bureau and the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef,” the company said last November. Since then it has planted 10,000 trees in the Amazon, the company said, part of a longer-term plan to plant a million trees.
The company has not yet signed a pledge against rainforest destruction, but last month said it was considering making one. “We are open to pledges and currently working on these matters,” the company said.
Gibbs, the University of Wisconsin professor, said that because PMI and other middlemen have such strong purchasing power, they “need to come to the table” to help stop deforestation.
So far meat brokers have been “completely ignored,” she said, allowing beef to reach consumers’ tables without meeting environmental standards strong enough to protect the Amazon.
Azeredo, the Brazilian prosecutor, emphasized that not just meat processors, but all companies in the beef and leather industries share the obligation to avoid suppliers that violate environmental laws.
“The entire industry that buys those animals, that sells leather or meat, must make sure that they don’t allow products from areas of illegal deforestation,” Azeredo said.
AP journalists Camille Fassett in Seattle and Fabiano Maisonnave in Brasilia, Brazil, contributed to this report.