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Exclusive: Brazil prosecutor seeks BRF food fraud case files from agriculture ministry

FILE PHOTO: Meatpacking company BRF SA's logo, which is one of the biggest food companies in the world, is pictured in Lucas do Rio Verde, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/File photo

By Ana Mano

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A Brazilian prosecutor investigating whether food processor BRF SA colluded with a laboratory group to evade food safety rules gave the country's agriculture ministry a 10-day deadline to share findings from its own administrative probe related to the scandal, according to a court filing dated Thursday.

Federal prosecutor Lyana Helena Joppert Kalluf has also lifted a confidentiality order on part of the information related to a criminal probe she oversees, a move designed to give "transparency" to the ongoing proceedings, the filing showed.

The prosecutor is requesting information related to the agriculture ministry's move to suspend Mérieux NutriSciences Brasil's laboratories following the start of a federal police investigation into an alleged scheme to avoid food safety checks.

Kalluf is also trying to ascertain what measures the ministry took in relation to BRF, the world's largest chicken exporter, after the probe began, the filing said.

The order requesting information from the ministry was directed at José Guilherme Leal, agriculture defense secretary.

The federal prosecutors' office in Paraná, Mérieux, and the ministry did not comment immediately.

The sprawling food safety probe, kicked off in March 2017, has examined the relationship between meat processors, agriculture ministry officials and laboratories with a mandate to certify the safety of meat products.

Prosecutor Kalluf is also interested in future measures the ministry would consider in connection with the scandal, according to the court filing.

The probe initially claimed that some firms, including BRF and JBS SA, bribed inspectors to keep processing plants running, issue international health certificates, and allow the sale of products in violation of food safety norms.

As the probe expanded from March 2018, prosecutors claimed specifically that BRF and Mérieux suppressed incriminating data relative to breaches of food safety protocols at certain BRF plants.

The fresh information requests may be a sign the probe, in which at least 40 people are suspects, may be nearing resolution. Authorities have yet to decide whether any of the people will be charged in connection with the criminal case.

Federal prosecutors sought cooperation from the firms involved in the expanded probe in return for more lenient penalties.

In an emailed statement on Thursday, BRF said it is collaborating with the authorities, without elaborating.

As prosecutors found "grave irregularities" during the investigation, companies would be required to carry out a root-and-branch restructure as part of any leniency deal.

(Reporting by Ana Mano; Editing by Marguerita Choy)