JBS is the world’s biggest meatpacker. So far in 2020 alone, they’ve done about $35 billion worth of U.S. sales — second only to Tyson.
But you’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of JBS. For one, they are a Brazilian company. And two, they like to keep a low profile.
That’s because JBS has been involved in a series of scandals over the years. In Brazil, they were forced to pay $3.2 billion in 2017 in one of the largest corporate fines in history for bribing hundreds of Brazilian officials to look the other way while JBS engaged in questionable business practices like selling rotten meat.
Their misconduct — brought to light by Brazilian investigation “Operation Weak Flesh” — resulted in the U.S. and European Union banning the import of Brazilian beef, although in February, the Trump administration cleared the way for Brazilian beef imports to start up again.
But JBS doesn’t just operate plants in Brazil. They also operate about 40 beef, pork, and chicken processing plants in the U.S., with their headquarters in Greeley, Colorado.
These plants, in addition to those owned and operated by other meat producers like Tyson and Smithfield Foods, quickly became epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks. Esther Honig, a freelance journalist who’s covered JBS and other meatpackers for outlets such as Mother Jones along with Ted Genoways, says that hundreds of JBS workers have been sickened and at least six she knows of have died.
Honig and Genoways spoke with JBS workers who described no soap in the bathrooms, workers who passed out on the line, and supervisors who told workers who said they felt sick that they couldn’t leave because there was no one to replace them.
There were also issues with testing. JBS originally refused to test its workers for COVID-19 at the Greeley plant, Honig says, with the state of Colorado finally setting up a testing site a mile down the road. JBS also then began donating food to local pantries and giving out free test kits as a way to launder its reputation.
“So they were offering to give tests to community members,” Honig says, “while at the same time they were denying their own workers.”
In a statement to Here & Now, JBS claims they have "fundamentally changed" the way they do business in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
While the company now provides sick leave and other protections for elderly and immunocompromised workers, Honig says their number of coronavirus cases continues to rise.
Dom Phillips, a freelance journalist for The Guardian in Brazil, says the situation there is similar. JBS meat plants have also emerged as a major vector of the virus in Brazil, which has surpassed 2 million cases and 77,000 deaths by Friday's count.
Adding to JBS’ problems, a new Amnesty International report out this week alleges that the company, contrary to past promises, continues to do business with farms that illegally log the Amazon to raise cattle.
It’s an issue of indirect supply chains, or “cattle laundering,” a process by which a cow raised in Amazon territory might be transported to a second or even third farm before being bought by JBS to conceal its point of origin, Phillips explains.
"JBS is committed to a sustainable livestock supply chain and has a zero deforestation policy within its supply chain," the company said in a statement, adding that they do not purchase cattle from farms involved in the deforestation of native forests or that encroach on indigenous land or conservation areas.
Regardless, JBS is likely here to stay. Honig says that while she would like to eat more ethically-sourced meat, the reality is that it’s expensive and hard to find.
“There are smaller packing houses, though,” she says.
But unless you’re buying from one of those smaller meatpackers, there’s no way to know if your meat comes from JBS. As Honig puts it, “You don’t see the JBS logo sticking out of the mound of ground beef behind the counter.”
By the numbers, though, you may as well assume it’s there.
This segment aired on July 17, 2020.