Saudi blocks imports of Brazilian meat from four plants

Brazilian Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi inspects meat at a Seara plant.

UPDATE: The Saudi Food and Drug Authority announced late on March 22, 2017, that the Kingdom was suspending the import of meat from four Brazilian meat processing plants.

Brazilian Ambassador to the Kingdom Flavio Marega met the head of the SFDA on March 22 and explained to him the ongoing investigation dubbed “Weak Meat” being undertaken by the Federal Police.

 By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

BRASILIA—The Saudi envoy to Brazil said that he and other foreign ambassadors in the Brazilian capital are waiting for the conclusions of the Brazilian government’s investigation into the bribing of meat inspectors and alleged export of rotten meat. Thirty-three inspectors and meat company officials have been arrested, and three meat-processing plants have been closed.

Several countries have already put a temporary freeze on imports of Brazilian meat, including China, South Korea and Chile. One of the meat companies being investigated exported chicken parts to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Ambassador Hisham al-Qahtani told me in an interview that Saudi authorities are aware of the accusations that rotten meat was exported from Brazil. He was one of the 33 ambassadors that attended a dinner hosted by Brazilian President Michel Temer on Sunday night at a posh barbecue restaurant in Brasilia to assure them of the safety and quality of Brazilian meat.

“President Temer and Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi explained everything that is happening,” said Qahtani. “They will do an investigation and will inform us of their findings. It is a very complicated situation, so we have to wait to see what the results of the investigation will tell us.”

Qahtani noted that Saudi authorities are aware of the situation. “I don’t know what they will decide in the Kingdom, but they are already aware of the investigation,” he said.

Saudi Arabia is the largest importer of Brazilian chicken in the world. According to Brazilian National Agricultural Society statistics, the kingdom imported more than US$1.150 billion in chicken products from Brazil, which amounted to 746,000 tons, in 2016.

The Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA) is responsible for monitoring food safety in the Kingdom, and last sent a team of inspectors to visit Brazilian meat processing plants in 2015, when the Kingdom lifted its three-year ban on Brazilian beef.

Brazil’s ambassador to the Kingdom told me in an interview that he is going to meet with SFDA officials on Wednesday in Riyadh to brief them on the Brazilian government’s investigation.

“So far I have not received any special instructions on how to calm the fears of Saudi consumers,” ambassador Flavio Marega said. “But we are basing our information on what President Michel Temer said at the dinner with foreign ambassadors. I am meeting with the head of the SFDA on Wednesday, and will find out then what the position of the Saudi government is.”

The Brazilian Agriculture Ministry posted a list on its website on Monday of the meat companies being investigated by the ministry and the Federal Police for allegedly exporting adulterated meat products. The Seara company is listed as having exported frozen chicken parts to the Kingdom, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and the European Union. Seara is owned by the giant JBS Group, the largest meat company in the world. In 2016 it had earnings before taxes of US$1 billion.

The Federation of Muslim Associations in Brazil (Fambras), which does halal certification of Brazilian chicken and beef exports to Muslim countries, said in a statement on its website that the quality of Brazilian halal meat was excellent and that it makes sure that Brazilian meat processors follow all of the necessary rules to produce, store and sell meat suitable for the consumption of Muslims.

“I do not believe that the Saudi authorities will impose restrictions on Brazilian meat since they already follow and inspect the procedures done here in Brazil and they know that there is no risk,” said Ali Zoghbi, the vice-president of Fambras, in an interview from Sao Paulo.

President Temer defended the quality of Brazilian meat, saying on Monday that all of the country’s production of meat could not be devalued because of the actions of a few. “We have more or less 4,850 meat processing plants in Brazil, and only three of them have been shut, apart from the 18 or 19 plants that are going to be investigated,” he said.

“I think the investigation is more centered on corruption rather than the quality of Brazilian meat,” said Miguel Daoud, a business consultant, in an interview with Globo News. “Eighty percent of the meat produced in Brazil is consumed locally. I am not that pessimistic, although this is a very serious investigation by the Federal Police,” he added.

Many analysts have noted that Brazil has built its reputation as an exporter of excellent quality meat products over the past ten years, and that this scandal has the possibility of setting back Brazil’s meat exports by five years.

Brazil’s attorney general asks that politicians be investigated

Attorney General Rodrigo Janot’s boxes of evidence that back up his request to have 83 current politicians investigated for corruption arrive at the Supreme Court in Brasilia on Tuesday evening.

 

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

BRASILIA – Brazil’s Attorney General Rodrigo Janot sent a long list of 83 current politicians to the Supreme Court to be investigated for possible involvement in corruption linked to the Car Wash investigation. He sent a further list of 211 suspects to lower courts. In Brazil, politicians in office can only be probed and tried by the Supreme Court.

According to the O Globo newspaper, citing sources that had seen the documents, former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff are on the list, as well as current senators Aecio Neves and Jose Serra. The president of the House of Representatives Rodrigo Maia; the head of the Senate Eunicio Oliveira; the chief of staff of President Michel Temer, Eliseu Padilha; the general secretary of the Presidency, Moreira Franco; Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes; Minister of Science and Technology Gilberto Kassab, and Minister of Cities Bruno Araujo, are also going to be investigated.

The leader of the government in the Senate, Romero Juca, the leader of the PMDB party in the Senate, Renan Calheiros, and Sen. Edson Lobao will also be investigated, according to O Globo. Former finance ministers Guido Mantega and Antonio Palocci are also included in Janot’s list.

Janot’s list of those to be investigated arrived in seven boxes at the Supreme Court in Brasilia at 5 p.m. They have been placed in a secure room next to the office of the head of the court, Chief Justice Carmen Lucia. Jornal da Band estimated that it will take court employees at least 10 days to initially go through all of the boxes, sorting the evidence that Janot sent the court, and scanning all of the documents into a computer system.  It is not known if the court will release the names of all being investigated, or of just a select few.

The Brazilian capital has been waiting with bated breath for the past two weeks for Janot’s list to reach the Supreme Court, with leading politicians in Congress afraid that their names would be included in the list.

Former President Lula gave testimony to a federal judge in Brasilia on Tuesday afternoon. Lula was asked if he had tried to unduly influence the Car Wash investigations. He denied the accusation, and alleged that he was the victim of a campaign to “massacre” him, reported the Folha de Sao Paulo. In the first minutes of his testimony Lula said that he woke up every morning in his home afraid that journalists would be camped out at his door waiting for him to be arrested.

The presidential palace wants the Supreme Court to release all of the names of the investigated politicians by the end of this week, so as to have time to counter the negative impact the list will have on the opinion of Brazilian voters. The Temer government is trying to push through Congress a major overhaul of the Social Security system, which will raise the mandatory retirement age. It also fears that the opposition will use the names of current government ministers on Janot’s list to attack the Temer administration during nationwide protests to support the Car Wash investigations to be held on March 26.

Some Brazilians skip Carnival for spiritual retreats

Members of the Adventist Church participate in a spiritual retreat during the 2012 Carnival in Brazil.

 By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

BRASILIA – With the official Carnival parades of samba schools in full swing in Brazil, many Brazilians are opting to not participate in a celebration that they believe to be excessive and immoral.

“Many immoral and nearly naked people go to Carnival. They engage in excessive drinking. We like to travel during Carnival without participating in the street dancing. We follow the Bible,” Neusa Lacerda, a 50-year-old housekeeper who lives in Gama, a satellite city around 34 kilometers from Brasilia, told me in an interview.

Born into a Catholic family, Neusa says a Jehovah’s Witness family raised her. She and her husband are now members of the evangelical church, and like to participate in family barbecues on the weekends.

“I have danced in the streets during Carnival in the past,” she said. “But God forgives us. I suffered a lot as my father was an alcoholic, and my religion says that we cannot become drunk. It is a question of self-control.”

Neusa is part of a growing number of Brazilians who are leaving the Catholic Church, which is still the largest in Brazil, and joining evangelical Protestant churches. According to the Datafolha polling firm three in every ten Brazilians (29 percent) are now evangelicals. In 1994, 75 percent of Brazilians considered themselves Catholic. In 2015 that number had fallen to 55 percent. The evangelical churches have been aggressive in recruiting new members, and use singing and other activities to attract Catholics bored by the relative traditionalism of the Catholic Church.

Carnival celebrations are big business in Brazil, with the 2016 one in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, generating R$400 million (US$129 million) in business sales, according to the mayor’s office. It estimates that for every R$1 spent, the city earns R$40 in return. This year in Salvador, Bahia, the local government estimates that R$50 million (US$16 million) will be spent on 197 attractions, with more than half of the expenses being sponsored by the private sector. In the colonial city of Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, it was reported by the O Tempo newspaper that revelers consumed 1 million liters of beer in the 2012 Carnival.

With the whole country shutting down for four days during the peak of the Carnival, it can be hard for evangelical churches to compete with the large street celebrations all over the country. Just last weekend in pre-Carnival street celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, it was estimated that one million people took to the streets to dance behind “trio eletricos” or mobile bands that blast out happy music for hours on end.

Some evangelical churches have decided to join in the Carnival celebrations, but in squeaky-clean and religious versions. According to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper the Bola de Neve Church in Guarulhos held a Carnival party on Feb. 10 at its headquarters, with music and dancing. But instead of the sleazy lyrics common in Carnival songs, words praising Jesus were inserted.

But most evangelical churches stay well away from dancing during Carnival and instead promote spiritual retreats where followers can spend their time in reflection and prayers. That is what the Baptist Ebezener Church of Taguatinga, around 24 kilometers from Brasilia, is doing yet again this year. It started holding this annual retreat in 2002, and runs around 20 branches of the church in Brasilia and surrounding cities.

“We are holding a spiritual retreat from Feb. 24-28, and we are expecting 3,000 people to attend,” pastor J. Alves told me in a phone interview.  “We have invited several guest speakers to give lectures during the day, and we have separate activities for the children and teenagers. We will charge each attendee around R$50 (US$16) a day in order to participate.”

Venezuela’s opposition tries to unite against Maduro

Opposition supporters protest in Caracas.

This story was published in Arab News on Feb. 10, 2017:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Special to Arab News

BRASILIA: A divided opposition in Venezuela is trying to put their differences aside to fight the political repression of President Nicolas Maduro, attempt to stop the country’s economy from sliding even more into depression, and to lower sky-high inflation.

President Maduro, an avid socialist, and protege of the late President Hugo Chavez, who is responsible for Venezuela’s voyage down the road to allegedly become a worker’s republic, has resorted to imprisoning political opponents and protesters. On the economic front, things have not gone well. The economy has been in a downward spiral for the past few years, ever since the international price of crude oil plunged in 2014. The country is dependent on imports for most of its food and goods, and with strict price controls enforced by the government, and forced nationalizations of whole sectors, this has led to widespread shortages of everything from soap, meat, sugar to toilet paper.

Despite opposition parties winning a majority of seats in Parliament in the December 2015 elections, 112 out of 167 seats, the Maduro government refuses to share power with them or even talk with them. For his new year address to the nation, Maduro did not deliver his speech in front of Parliament as is customary, but in front of the Supreme Court which is packed with his supporters.

This has caused regular street protests against the government, and Maduro has responded by having protesters arrested. Foro Penal, an NGO of lawyers who came together to defend protesters who get arrested, estimates that between 2013 and 2016, 429 protesters were arrested, and that 106 were still in jail at the end of December 2016. It estimates that there were 2,732 detentions in Venezuela for political reasons in 2016 alone, and that from January 2014 to December 2016 there were 6,831 political detentions.

“Maduro has created a sort of revolving door, a few leave and many more come in,” said Gonzalo Himiob, one of Foro Penal’s directors, to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo last month. “The economic and social crisis is very serious and will cause many more protests,” he added.

“The government must either file formal charges and try people in open court, or release them. Indefinite holding of individuals without trial makes a mockery of the judicial system,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan historian and professor of Latin American Studies at Pomona College in California, in an interview with Arab News.

The opposition started a petition last year to have Maduro removed from office for incompetence, but despite getting the required signatures from 20 percent of registered voters, election officials stopped the petition in October 2016. A poll by Datanalisis at the time found that 90 percent of the population believed the country was going in the wrong direction, and 76 percent wanted Maduro to leave office.

In January 2017 Maduro appointed the hard line governor of Aragua, Tareck El Aissami, as his new vice president. By the end of the month he gave Aissami economic decree powers, making him one of the most powerful men in Venezuela. This caused the opposition to rethink their strategy of removing Maduro from president, since the vice president would take over in such a scenario.

Although opposition parties have formed a coalition called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, they have been severely divided, able at times to rouse large street protests across the country against Maduro’s rule, and at other times unable to.

“The opposition parties in Venezuela are divided, and there are calls from Maria Corina Machado and others to disband the MUD and form a new organization. Some in the opposition want a recall; while others prefer to oust Maduro through street actions, and yet others would rather confront the government in statewide elections for governor later this year. They hope that regional elections would set the stage for presidential elections where they hope to defeat Maduro,” Salas said.

Both the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Vatican have been trying to negotiate an agreement between the Maduro government and the opposition, but to no avail so far. The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, has been especially critical of Maduro’s repression of opposition protests, and pointed out in an interview to the El Observador newspaper at the end of January that there was a need to act now in Venezuela because the mediation efforts of Unasur and Vatican had been a failure.

“People have been deprived of their constitutional right to recall President Maduro, political prisoners are still incarcerated, violence is rampant, and there is widespread hunger. The international community cannot wait any longer and must act now,” Almagro said.

But Salas believes that the OAS has been sidelined in Venezuela because of its criticism of Maduro’s rule.

“The secretary of the OAS, Almagro, has engaged in sharp personal attacks on the government, while turning a blind eye to issues in other countries such as Mexico. As a result the OAS has been largely sidelined in Venezuela. The key players have been Unasur and the Catholic Church. With Ernesto Samper’s resignation as secretary general of Unasur, it is still unclear what future role the body will play in Venezuela,” said Salas.

After not having much to show for after years of street protests, the opposition MUD coalition is now planning new ways of appealing to the Venezuelan electorate.

Jesus Torrealba, the secretary general of MUD, told the Americas Quarterly that they would be doing more outreach to poorer voters this year. He said they would rotate its leadership and include civil society in its decision making.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1051991/world

Brazil tries to contain yellow fever outbreak

This story was published in Arab News on Feb. 2, 2017:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Special to Arab News

BRASILIA: Brazil is trying to contain an outbreak of yellow fever that has already claimed 46 lives, by vaccinating inhabitants of high-risk areas.

There have been 568 suspected cases of yellow fever so far this year, with 430 still being investigated, 107 confirmed cases and 31 discarded ones, according to the Health Ministry.
The outbreak is centered in rural areas of southeast Minas Gerais state, and the bordering areas of the states of Bahia and Espirito Santo.

“Apparently the state governments involved were rather slow in vaccinating everyone, but as soon as the outbreak happened they started to quickly vaccinate the population at risk,” Dirceu Bartolomeu Greco, an infection specialist and professor at the School of Medicine of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, told Arab News.

“I think we may have reached the peak of the current outbreak. This serves as a very important reminder that the preventive part of this is perhaps the most important. I think this outbreak will be controlled.”

There is no known cure for yellow fever, so getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent contracting the disease.

It is a viral infection that causes fever, headache, chills, back pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle pain, nausea and vomiting. In advanced stages it attacks the liver, causing the victim’s skin to turn yellow.

Brazil has been battling the disease since the mid-1800s. It originated in Africa and was brought to South America by slaves.

The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Rio de Janeiro has been leading the fight against yellow fever in Brazil since its establishment in 1900, and today produces millions of doses of yellow fever vaccine for Brazil and various countries in Africa.

The Health Ministry reinforced its strategic stock of vaccine with an additional 11.5 million doses. It has already sent out an extra 5.4 million doses to five states: 2.9 million to Minas Gerais, 1.05 million to Espirito Santo, 400,000 to Bahia, 350,000 to Rio de Janeiro and 700,000 to Sao Paulo.

The problem is that many people living in urban areas have rushed to public health posts to be vaccinated for free, causing temporary shortages of the vaccine in some cities.
In Luziania, Goias, just 57 kilometers from the capital Brasilia, a suspected yellow fever death led to a rush on vaccination centers, causing a 30 percent increase in the number of people seeking vaccination, O Globo newspaper reported.

The federal government sent an extra 100,000 doses to Goias. The state government of Goias said 94 percent of its population is already vaccinated against the disease. The strain of yellow fever prevalent in Brazil is spread by mosquitoes living in rural areas, where monkeys are the common carriers of the virus.

The government recommends that Brazilians living in 19 states, mostly in the mid-west and north of the country, take the vaccine.

New scientific studies have shown that a single yellow fever vaccination could possibly protect a person their whole life.

“The advantage of the vaccine is that studies are showing that you’ll probably only need one dose to protect yourself for life,” said Greco.

Studies have shown that a single vaccination has protected some patients for up to 30 years. Current practice recommends that people living in or traveling to high-risk areas be vaccinated every 10 years.

Rapid expansion of the population into rural areas has added to the severity of yellow fever outbreaks, said Greco: “Brazil hasn’t had an urban outbreak of yellow fever since 1942, but we need to keep an eye on this push into rural areas and keep up our prevention campaigns.”

The virus is transmitted in Brazil by mosquitoes in rural, heavily wooded areas, not by the Aedes aegypti mosquitos of urban areas that have already spread dengue fever and the Zika virus. This year’s outbreak of yellow fever has been the largest in Brazil’s history, Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper reported.

In 2000 there were 85 cases and 40 deaths, in 2008 there were 46 cases and 27 deaths, and in 2009 there were 47 cases and 17 deaths.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1047666/world

National service is a must

Saudi soldiers in formation.

Saudi soldiers in formation.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The call by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Alsheikh for mandatory military conscription of Saudi youth is an overdue and excellent one. Not only would it bring much needed discipline into the lives of young Saudis, it would also give them a greater purpose in life.

The Grand Mufti said he wanted to see specific legislation enacted that would make military service compulsory for young Saudi men for a specified period of time. Our government would do well to seriously look into this. Many countries around the world have had mandatory military service for decades, and even our Gulf allies such as Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE already have some form of military service.

Can you imagine the discipline of having to rise at 4:30 in the morning and be ready for full inspection by 5 a.m.? Conscripts would have to make their own beds, shine their own shoes and wash their own clothes. No one would have their Indonesian maid there to do all of the domestic chores. No, the Saudi youth will have to do this themselves, and do it well without complaining.

I think the idea of mandatory military service should be expanded to include national service such as doing volunteer work, like helping to build housing for the poor, so as to accommodate Saudis who absolutely do not want to do military service. That way, Saudi women could also be included in this mandatory public service, which would be a great way to build confidence, capability and experience among all of our youth.

I attended the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh last week, and was very pleased to see so many young Saudis, both male and female, attending and asking relevant questions of the speakers. But I still think that as a nation we lack certain basic life skills and independence to do them, which other youth have learned through necessity. While our oil wealth has been a blessing in that it has enabled us to be able to hire maids and drivers to help us in our daily lives, it has also made many of us “dumb” in many ways. How many young Saudis are capable of cleaning their own rooms, washing their own clothes and bathrooms without the help of servants? This may seem like something trivial, but it is not. We must have these everyday life skills in order to prove to ourselves that we are capable and not helpless, spoiled brats.

To sweeten the prospects of military and national service, the government could promise to give university scholarships for those Saudis who excel in their service to study abroad. In return, the government would insist that these scholarship students return to the Kingdom to work for a certain number of years.

Young Saudis are far too often accused of being lazy and of floating through life without any purpose. This is unfortunate; something that mandatory national service would certainly help change. In order for this concept to work, all Saudis regardless of wealth or position would be obliged when they turn 18 years old to undertake national service for a minimum of one year or 18 months. They would of course be paid a monthly stipend by the government for their service. Refresher training every five years, for two months until the age of 35, would keep our military conscripts up to date with the latest techniques.

Compulsory national service is an idea that is long overdue. Young Saudis are in dire need of such a program to give them purpose in life and to make them responsible and valuable citizens. For sure there will be much resistance to this idea in the beginning, but when the youth see the benefits of it, they will surely be glad that the government introduced it.

Holding workers accountable

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, visits an empty government office.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, visits an empty government office.

This article was printed in Arab News on September 11, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The surprise inspection of government offices in Dubai on the morning of Aug. 28 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the UAE’s prime minister and ruler of Dubai, found that many managers were not at their desks working. Video released of the ruler showed him walking around empty offices, looking at papers piled on desks and not looking pleased at all.

His surprise inspection tour took him to the municipality, Dubai international airport, the

Land Department and the Department of Economic Development. The next day his office announced the retirement of nine of these managers, mentioning their titles and full names. It was a way of naming and shaming. Just imagine if a similar thing happened here in Saudi Arabia? It would send shockwaves through our bloated bureaucracy.

The ruler felt he could not fire subordinates for not being at work when their superiors were also skipping work. He also stressed that the retirements were a method of retiring the older generation, who had already proved their abilities, to allow the younger generation a chance at running things.

The problem with public servants all around the world is that they often become entrenched and entitled bureaucracies that only want to do their duties when they feel like it and at their own pace. Egypt and India are two countries that have huge civil service contingents that are very efficient when they want to be, and incredibly slow, hard-headed and lazy when it suits them.

Go to any government office in the developing world and more often than not you will find long queues of people waiting to be attended to by bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the government workers can be seen drinking endless cups of tea and bantering among each other, seemingly oblivious to the waiting public. It seems that the quasi-for life jobs that they have, shield them from the efficiency standards that the private sector is subject to.

A recent cartoon in a Saudi newspaper showed a worker running out of an office while hurriedly telling a tea boy to leave a glass of tea on his desk so that his boss would think that he is somewhere in the building and coming back soon. I think everyone who has ever worked in an office laughed at reading the cartoon’s text as it must have struck a chord. But it captured perfectly the attempt of many in Saudi Arabia to appear to be working, while in fact slacking off to go to a social gathering, to smoke or just to bunk off work at the expense of the employer.

Unfortunately far too many Saudis and Gulf citizens think this is still acceptable behavior as long as they don’t get caught neglecting their professional responsibilities. This leads to a loss of morale among other workers in the offices where this occurs. It is also incredibly inefficient and unfair as well; as more often than not someone else in the office will have to do the shirker’s work on top of their own work.

I am sure that there some Saudis who work extremely hard and do not fit this pattern of behavior. Often, we have been lulled into this sense of entitlement and consequent slacking off because of the immense oil wealth we as a nation have been fortunate enough to be blessed with. “Oh, someone else can do my work,” has normally been the attitude. But with the plunge in oil prices, and the realization that our oil reserves will not last forever, Saudis have better wake up soon to their new reality and work much harder than they have ever before.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/983096/columns

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