May 22, 2019 / 5:40 PM / a year ago

UPDATE 2-Brazil bans Merieux labs from food inspections after meatpacker BRF scandal

(Adds details of allegations in food fraud probe, Merieux sales information, plants banned)

By Ana Mano and Stefani Inouye

SAO PAULO, May 22 (Reuters) - Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture officially banned three laboratories from conducting food inspections over their involvement in a food safety testing scandal that ensnared meatpacker BRF SA, according to decisions published in the official government gazette on Wednesday.

The three laboratories run by Merieux NutriSciences Corp in Brazil, which performed testing on BRF products, are no longer authorized to process samples under the ministry's official control program, according to the decisions.

BRF and the Agriculture Ministry did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

The primary allegations of a criminal investigation involve "alleged misconduct relating to quality violations, improper use of feed components and falsification of tests at certain BRF manufacturing plants and accredited labs," BRF said in securities filings.

Reuters reported in February that the three Merieux labs had lost their "ISO 17025" accreditation, which is essential to performing tests recognized by the ministry.

The loss of ISO accreditation was based on the investigation of alleged cheating by BRF and Merieux on food safety inspections, Inmetro, the federal agency responsible for the lab certifications, said at the time.

Merieux said in a statement on Wednesday that it is in discussions with Inmetro to restore the accreditations to perform food tests.

An Inmetro official said it has rejected an appeal by Merieux to restore the labs' ISO accreditation. In two years' time, the company can apply for accreditation again, the agency said.

BRF suffered financial losses from the scandal, which briefly closed several markets to the world's largest chicken exporter. A ban on 12 BRF meat plants, imposed in April last year by the European Union, still stands.

In February, Merieux denied involvement "in any organized fraud or corruption system with any of its customers in relation with the investigations." The group runs a global network of laboratories in 23 countries, and Brazilian operations represent almost 7% of its sales, Merieux said.

The labs affected by the ministry's decision on Wednesday are based in two cities in the state of Paraná and another in São Paulo state, according to the official gazette.

The loss of accreditation is effective immediately. (Reporting by Ana Mano and Stefani Inouye; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Grant McCool)

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