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From bribes to your barbecue: How Australia's biggest meat company was built on corruption – ABC News

From bribes to your barbecue: How Australia's biggest meat company was built on corruption
You might not know the name JBS.
But if you buy Primo ham, Huon salmon, McDonald's burgers or meat from Coles, Woolworths or Aldi, you're likely eating JBS products.
It's the biggest meat company in the world, the biggest in Australia, and it's devouring more and more of our food industry.
Four Corners can reveal that behind the food giant's early expansion in Australia were bribes paid in Brazil, and two billionaire brothers willing to break the law to get what they want.
Here's what you need to know about the company behind your next barbecue. 
The family empire started in 1953 as a small butchery in regional Brazil, overseen by businessman Jose Batista Sobrinho.
When his sons Joesley and Wesley took the reins, the business expanded in Brazil, throughout South America, and into North America.
A $US1.4 billion ($1.9 billion) takeover of the US beef processor Swift made JBS a major player internationally in 2007.
That same deal gave JBS control over Australian Meat Holdings, the country's biggest beef processor, which was owned by Swift.
JBS's plans for Australia didn't stop there.
The following year, JBS paid $US150 million for Tasman Group, which owned abattoirs in Tasmania and Victoria plus a feedlot in NSW.
Suddenly, JBS had sites up and down the eastern coast of Australia — raising the eyebrows of some local producers and graziers.
JBS had the financial backing of the Brazilian government — something Wesley Batista insisted at the time was a "normal financial structure".
In fact, Four Corners has confirmed its first two takeovers in Australia were fuelled by corruption and bribery in Brazil.
The supremely well-connected Joesley Batista had orchestrated the company's global acquisition spree, buying up competitors while expanding its supply chain.
But he detonated a corruption scandal in Brazil in 2017, testifying against top-level connections he had bribed.
Joesley, Wesley and some of their most senior executives outlined a vast scheme that involved payments to more than 1,800 politicians.
In exchange for immunity for the Batista brothers, JBS's parent company agreed to pay a $US3.2 billion penalty.
Joesley confessed that he paid bribes to Brazil's finance minister, on the understanding the minister would persuade a state bank to fund JBS ventures.
This funding helped pay for the acquisition involving Australian Meat Holdings.
The next year, another funding round underpinned by bribes was used in the takeover of Tasman Group.
A prosecutor asked Joesley if JBS would have been able to secure funding without the bribes to the finance minister.
"No, no," he replied. "There would have been no deals."
Since the corruption scandal, JBS's headaches have only continued.
Wesley and Joesley both spent time in jail in 2018, accused of insider trading after they sold down shares and speculated on currency ahead of their plea deal.
In the United States, JBS's parent company has paid $US256 million to settle a foreign bribery case while the business has also paid hundreds of millions of dollars more in fines and settlements over price-fixing rackets.
JBS has pledged to help save the Amazon rainforest but has faced repeated accusations of sourcing cattle from illegally deforested land in Brazil.
It was fined $US8 million over deforestation in 2017.
Despite pledges to crack down on the problem, investigations by Bloomberg and Reporter Brasil allege the problem continues.
Several supermarket chains in Britain have dropped products using beef from JBS in Brazil.
Coles stocks tinned beef imported from JBS in Brazil on its shelves in Australia but declined to comment on whether it had any concerns about illegal deforestation in its supply chain.
In a statement, JBS Brazil said it was one of the first companies to invest in policies and technology to fight and eliminate deforestation in the Amazon and that it "remains steadfastly committed to this cause".
JBS has also made headlines during its lengthy battle with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) after a 2019 audit identified "various tax risks" within the business.
But the company has resisted handing the ATO thousands of pages of correspondence with its tax advisors, PwC, claiming the documents are covered by legal privilege.
None of this has curbed JBS's ambitions in Australia, where it's now moving into a whole new industry: fish farming.
Last year, the company bought Australia's second largest producer of farmed salmon, Huon Aquaculture, for $425 million.
The bid prompted fierce backlash from environmentalists such as former Greens leader Bob Brown and author Richard Flanagan.
Billionaire and Huon shareholder Andrew Forrest even paid for a series of national newspaper ads arguing against a takeover.
These voices were countered by Tasmania's then-premier Peter Gutwein and the federal assistant minister for fisheries, Jono Duniam, who both publicly welcomed JBS's salmon plans.
Buying Huon and — in a bid to expand even further into the pork industry — major pork processor Rivalea in 2021, were major tests for JBS.
It hadn't bought an Australian company since its corruption scandal.
Both deals needed to be approved by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and assessed by his advisors at the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), which considers the national interest and the character of investors.
JBS Australia CEO Brent Eastwood told ABC radio in September the company had a good relationship with FIRB.
Unlike former Treasurer Joe Hockey, who was happy to laud the JBS takeover of Primo in 2015, Mr Frydenberg has been more tight-lipped.
He made no public statement when approving the latest deals and has declined to answer questions from Four Corners.
JBS Australia declined an interview and did not answer written questions.
In a statement, it described itself as a "proud Australian corporate citizen with a strong brand and reputation".
While the Batista brothers — which Forbes estimates are worth approximately $US5 billion each — no longer sit on JBS's board or occupy executive management positions, they retain huge stakes in the company.
A Batista will continue overseeing the company's expansion in Australia — Wesley's son, Wesley Junior, is now the global president for Oceania.
Transparency International Brazil's Bruno Brandão warns turning around the conduct of a company like JBS is a challenging task.
"[It] needs a lot of pressure from authorities, from consumers, from investors to really make sure that this type of company, that goes through systemic corruption, really transforms its practices."
Watch Four Corners' full investigation into JBS's practices and massive expansion on ABC iview.
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.
AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)


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