(Adds China context)
By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO, June 22 (Reuters) - The United States halted imports of fresh Brazilian beef on Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said, after a high percentage of shipments failed to pass safety checks.
The USDA had "recurring concerns about the safety of the products intended for the American market," after increasing tests on Brazilian beef in March, according to a statement.
The agency raised scrutiny on Brazilian beef and ready-to-eat products as a precaution following an investigation into corruption involving Brazil's health inspectors that targeted meat companies JBS SA and BRF SA.
JBS, the world's largest meat packer, declined to comment on the U.S. ban.
The USDA's action threatens the reputation of meat from Brazil, the world's top exporter of beef and poultry, even though the United States is not a top customer. It also could boost domestic sales in the United States.
"Product was already on the water and that's not going to be allowed in," Altin Kalo, a U.S. livestock analyst at Steiner Consulting Group, said about shipments headed to the United States from Brazil via boat.
Since March, the USDA has rejected 11 percent of Brazilian fresh beef products, compared to the rejection rate of 1 percent for shipments from the rest of the world, the agency said. The shipments, totaling about 1.9 million pounds, raised concerns about public health, animal health and sanitation, according to the USDA.
The agency said none of the rejected lots made it into the U.S. market.
The move to block Brazilian meat is a turnaround for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who warned in March that Brazil might retaliate if the United States halted beef imports.
On Thursday, he said in a statement that "although international trade is an important part of what we do at USDA, and Brazil has long been one of our partners, my first priority is to protect American consumers."
The U.S. suspension will remain in place until Brazil's Agriculture Ministry "takes corrective action which the USDA finds satisfactory," according to the agency.
A slew of global buyers, including China, Egypt and Chile, curtailed imports of Brazilian meat after Brazilian federal police unveiled an investigation into alleged corruption in the sector on March 17.
Brazilian authorities said at the time that meat companies made payments to government health officials to forego inspections and cover up health violations.
China is not expected to follow the U.S. move as it only permits imports of frozen Brazilian beef, which has different requirements to fresh meat, said analysts.
Brazil is also China's top beef supplier, and would be difficult to replace in the short-term, said Pan Chenjun, senior animal protein analyst at Rabobank.
The United States began allowing shipments of fresh beef from Brazil last year after banning them due to concerns about foot and mouth disease in cattle. (Additional reporting by Michael Hirtzer in Chicago, Tatiana Bautzer in Sao Paulo and Dominique Patton in Beijing.; Editing by David Gregorio and Bill Trott)