Most cows in Brazil, the world’s largest beef exporter, are grass-fed. Ranchers in the precious biome use bulldozers, machetes, and fire to make room for pastureland—a practice that’s illegal but so widespread that it’s almost impossible for strapped regulatory teams to root out. The sheer size of the country’s beef industry—2.5 million ranchers, 2,500 slaughterhouses, and about 215 million heads of cattle spread across 3.3 million square miles (8.5 million square kilometers)—is one reason the big meatpackers say they’ve struggled to keep tabs on their suppliers. Another hurdle: Brazil’s government, which requires ranchers to file documents detailing the movements of their cattle, keeps that paperwork largely to itself.
JBS SA, the global beef industry leader, vowed in September 2020 to start monitoring its indirect suppliers—i.e., the farmers who raise the cattle to sell to the folks who sell it to JBS. That followed a similar announcement months earlier from rival Marfrig Global Foods SA. Brazil’s cattle ranches come in all shapes and sizes, from mom and pop farms that ship out calves as soon as they’re born to one-stop shops that breed, fatten, and finish cows all on their own.
Cattle tagging (think of the microchip a veterinarian might slip under your dog’s skin) is already an established practice in large parts of the global food supply chain. For big farms it would be cheap to implement, costing about 0.5% of an animal’s revenue, according to a report from the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests & Agriculture. Uruguay, a direct competitor to Brazil, was an early adopter in the Americas, making it possible to trace a single cow from birth to plate, says Erasmus zu Ermgassen, a sustainable livestock and supply chain researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.
Some cows spend their entire life on one ranch, but that’s pretty rare…Cattle move…as many as six times before they’re slaughtered. That constant shuffling makes it all too easy to hide a cow’s real origin, a practice known as “cattle laundering.”
Each time a cow is moved from one property to another, the state issues a guide to animal transport, or GTA, which identifies the shipping farm, the receiving farm, the number of cattle being moved, and the date of transfer. This process helps ensure the safety of the overall herd in the case of a disease outbreak, but deforestation fighters have also latched on to the documents as a potential key to traceability.
Currently the only people who regularly get to see the GTAs are the ranchers, the drivers moving the cattle, and food sanitation officials. The government says making them more widely available would violate ranchers’ privacy rights, even as the secrecy helps bad actors evade the law.
Excerpt Why it’s hard to stop Amazon deforestation, starting with beef industry, Bloomberg, Dec. 17, 2020