By Alberto Alerigi
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil's Agriculture Ministry said on Monday it ordered three more food processing facilities to suspend production amid an investigation into alleged corruption of inspectors and unsanitary conditions in the world's biggest meat producer.
That brings to six the number of food processing plants that have been ordered temporarily closed by Brazilian authorities. A total of 21 plants are included in a police investigation and are not allowed to export any product, 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 on March 17 unveiled an investigation into alleged payments to government health officials by meat processing companies to forgo inspections and ignore abuses, code-named "Operation Weak Flesh."
Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi said investigators have not found any meat product that could harm the health of consumers in Brazil or abroad. But he acknowledged at a news conference that Brazil will have an uphill battle to recover its market share after confidence in its meat was undermined by the corruption scandal.
The investigation hit hard at one of the few strong sectors in Brazil's economy, which is experiencing its worst recession on record.
But on Saturday, China, the biggest buyer of Brazilian meats, along with Egypt and Chile, lifted import suspensions, 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.
The European Union has maintained a partial ban on products from the 21 meatpacking plants under investigation, which, in any case, are currently barred from exporting.
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.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)