A report by a small European NGO put British supermarkets and the beef industry on edge this week. In it, Brussels-based environmental campaign group Fern named and shamed the UK as the EU’s number one importer of ‘illegal’ beef from deforested areas of tropical forest in South America.

The group also pointed the finger at other EU countries over their imports of soy, palm oil and leather, but with memories of Horsegate still fresh the idea of ‘illegal beef’ being sold in the UK was the most eyecatching of its claims. 

So what are these claims based on, and how valid are they? And what can retailers do to ensure their supply chains aren’t exposed?

That British consumers are being sold large quantities of beef from deforested lands sounds unlikely at first glance. After all, the UK imports very little fresh and frozen beef from South America (just 4,200 tonnes in 2014, according to Eblex). However, it does buy in a substantial amount of processed beef from countries such as Brazil - 33,000 tonnes of Brazilian processed beef came into the UK last year [Eblex]. Most of that ends up being sold as corned beef.

That’s where the UK’s exposure to deforestation comes from, says Sam Lawson, the independent researcher who wrote the report. “What it comes down to is the UK imports a lot of beef from Brazil, particularly corned beef.”

Too big a leap?

A quick survey of supermarket shelves confirms most corned beef sold is, indeed, from Brazil, but Liz Murphy, director of the International Meat Trade Association (IMTA), worries the report makes too much of a leap in assuming such beef necessarily originated from illegally deforested land.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to look at this report in detail but am concerned that many of the statements are based not on fact but on a model,” she says. “As we know, modelling is only as good as the assumptions and methodology it is based on.”

Indeed, Lawson admits the report doesn’t trace illegal beef to specific supply chains - he doesn’t name any supermarkets or beef processors - and instead relies on looking at overall trade figures and using available source data and previous studies to estimate the proportion of products that comes from illegally deforested land.

But that doesn’t invalidate the substance of the report, he says. “What we were trying to do was capture the scale of the problem, rather than demonstrate exactly where it exists.”

Consumers and retail buyers might nevertheless be worried, but Murphy says great strides have already been made to tackle deforestation.

Since 2009, Brazil’s three biggest processors (JBS, Marfrig and Minerva), who between them account for 60% of cattle slaughtering in the Amazon, have been signatories to a moratorium on the purchase of cattle from suppliers linked to illegal deforestation known as the G4 Cattle Agreement.

To track suppliers, they have developed a sophisticated satellite monitoring system, and industry and government are involved in the Brazilian Roundtable on Sustainable Livestock, which works to develop standards for Brazilian beef production.

Plus, most UK retailers have commitments to ensure their supply chains do not contain products linked to deforestation. Tesco, for example, says: “Our Brazilian supplier is a signatory to the Greenpeace Cattle Agreement ensuring our beef is not sourced from newly deforested areas, and we are working with them to exceed these requirements, strengthening traceability further to ensure this is the case throughout the animals’ entire lifecycle.”

The evidence - including from campaigners - suggests these efforts are working. Daniela Montalto, Greenpeace senior campaigner on forests, says the latest audit of Brazilian processors showed high levels of compliance with the G4 Cattle Agreement, and even the Fern report acknowledges government/industry action has resulted in a “dramatic decrease in deforestation”.

But that’s not to say UK retailers shouldn’t be concerned, argues Lawson. There is plenty of evidence to suggest illegal clearing of tropical forests remains an issue - Brazil had 4,000 police investigations into illegal land conversion in 2013.

Even if UK retailers have solid enough supply chains to ensure they are not selling illegal beef, they should back calls for new EU-level legislation to make it more difficult for illegal beef to come in, Fern argues. “We welcome the commitments that UK retailers have made on sustainability, but it is going to be very difficult for them to achieve them in the context of such brazen illegality,” says campaigner Hannah Mowat.

Fern has yet to set out what legislative options it wants (it plans to do so on 30 March), but no matter what its proposals, UK retailers and their corned beef suppliers should expect increased scrutiny for some time to come.

Fern report: the key claims

  • The EU is a global leader in the consumption of commodities from illegally deforested land, importing goods valued at €6bn annually
  • The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, France and the UK imported 75% and consumed 65% of the ‘tainted’ products
  • The UK was the most important destination for beef from illegally cleared land, importing beef worth an estimated £113m in 2012, accounting for over 115,000ha of unsanctioned deforestation
  • Most of this beef came from Brazil, responsible for 60% of the land illegally cleared for commodities imported into the European Union
  • Corned beef sales were down 1.2% year on year in volume terms in the 52 weeks to 1 March 2015, with value down 4%
  • In 2013, there were 4,000 ongoing police investigations into illegal conversions in Brazil, and slaughterhouses in three Amazon states were fined