RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil ordered three more food processing plants to suspend production on Monday amid an investigation into alleged corruption in its meat industry as the world's biggest beef exporter sought to regain the trust of consumers.
Brazil's center-right government is hoping countries that imposed bans on Brazilian meat products because of the scandal will soon follow China's lead in lifting them, and that others such as the European Union will not impose tougher restrictions.
The top EU food safety official began a visit saying he wanted to help Brazil overcome the scandal and recover the confidence of European consumers, following the police investigation alleging the payment of bribes to inspectors and unsanitary conditions at meat plants.
The investigation has hit hard at one of the few strong sectors in Brazil's economy, which is experiencing its worst recession on record.
"It's not about bans. It's about restoring trust," EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis told Reuters. "It's about people's health. It's about trust in trade."
The European Union has maintained a partial ban on products from the 21 meatpacking plants under investigation, which are currently barred from exporting.
European farm groups have called for tougher action against Brazilian meat.
Andriukaitis declined to say what measures the EU might take in coming days, but said he would discuss an "effective official controls system" with Brazilian Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi in Brasilia on Tuesday.
"People need to perceive food is safe," he said in an interview.
Brazil has so far ordered the temporary closure of six of the 21 food processing plants under investigation by the police and health authorities. The other 15 plants are not allowed to export, although they may still produce for the domestic market.
All three plants ordered closed on Monday are in Parana state, where the scandal has been centered. They include units of Souza Ramos, Industria de Laticinios SSPMA and Fabrica de Farinha de Carnes Castro.
Several major meat importers issued bans after Brazilian federal police unveiled their investigation on March 17, code-named "Operation Weak Flesh."
Maggi said investigators had not found any products that could harm the health of consumers. He acknowledged at a news conference that Brazil faced an uphill battle to recover its market share after confidence in its meat was undermined by the scandal.
On Saturday, China, the biggest buyer of Brazilian meats, lifted import suspensions, a move accompanied by Egypt and Chile, bringing hope of an end to the crisis.
Maggi said he hoped to convince Hong Kong, Brazil's No. 2 market, to follow China and lift its full ban on Brazilian meat imports.
Meat is Brazil's third biggest export after soy and iron ore, with foreign sales of almost $14 billion last year in beef, chicken, pork and other products.
The meat scandal has fueled pressure from farm groups in the United States to block imports of Brazilian raw beef, a market that Brazil only gained access to last year for its fresh meat, an important seal of approval that is now at risk.
The United States has already started testing all beef from Brazil for pathogens.
Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Cooney