(Adds information, quotes, statement from Rangel)
By Ana Mano
SAO PAULO, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Brazil's Deputy Agriculture Minister Eumar Novacki told Reuters on Friday a total of 15 meatpacking plants were subject to unannounced audits on Thursday as part of a new food inspection protocol coordinated directly from Brasília.
The new policy of unannounced inspections is part of government efforts to ensure meatpackers comply with quality and safety standards after a sprawling food sector investigation unveiled evidence of companies evading official controls and sparked export bans.
The firms targeted by the ministry's unscheduled inspections included BRF SA and other meat-packers the official declined to name.
"From now on such unannounced audits will be part of a new inspection protocol coordinated out or Brasília," Novacki said. "They will happen all over the country as we want to be sure of the quality and safety of the food products offered to the population."
BRF, Brazil's largest chicken processor and the world's largest exporter, confirmed multiple plants had been subject to the unexpected audits on Thursday, declining to give a specific tally. A source speaking on condition of anonymity said at least six BRF plants had been inspected under the new policy.
An industry source said producers including JBS SA , the world's largest meatpacker, had been subject to unscheduled inspections even before Thursday.
The person, who asked for anonymity, said such inspections became more frequent after allegations that Brazilian food processors could be dodging official controls.
JBS did not return a request for comment on whether it was targeted by new audits on Thursday.
The agriculture ministry's new inspection protocol comes after a criminal investigation in which the federal police accused BRF of evading food safety checks and colluding with a laboratory to hide the presence of pathogens like salmonella in meat samples.
Luís Rangel, secretary for agriculture defense, described Thursday's unscheduled audits as "different from the traditional inspections as they stemmed from the investigation by the federal police."
"It was a strategic move, not a surprising one, organized after the federal police operations," Rangel told Reuters in an emailed message.
Reuters reported on Thursday the agriculture ministry's unscheduled inspections at BRF were the first salvo in its own investigation into police allegations that the company evaded food safety checks.
Rangel said the ministry's corruption probe of BRF will help authorities advance on devising actions to curb irregularities. (Reporting by Ana Mano; editing by Clive McKeef)