By Ana Mano and Jake Spring
SAO PAULO/BRASILIA, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Brazilian laboratories involved in a food safety scandal at meatpacker BRF SA have lost their accreditations from a government agency, an official at the Agriculture Ministry told Reuters on Thursday.
Agriculture Defense Secretary José Guilherme Leal said that three laboratories owned by Mérieux Nutrisciencies Corp in Brazil, which performed testing on BRF products, were no longer authorized to perform food safety testing, having lost what is known as ISO 17025 accreditation.
That global accreditation standard for calibration and testing laboratories is necessary for the ministry to allow a lab to perform food safety testing on its behalf.
According to Brazil's National Institute of Metrology and Standardization (Inmetro), a federal agency responsible for the certification, the three Mérieux labs and two BRF-run labs lost their ISO 17025 accreditation in January.
Inmetro said the decision was based on their involvement in a federal police operation called 'Operation Trickery,' which accused BRF and Mérieux of cheating on food safety checks.
Last year, police raids of the three laboratories used by Mérieux to test BRF products revealed data showing a "systematically" high number of false positives for the salmonella pathogen, according to the findings of the probe.
The criminal investigation has not yet led to formal charges.
Inmetro said the cancellation was in effect for two years and that a new accreditation process takes 10 months on average.
"When Inmetro confirms cancellation of that certification, laboratories automatically lose accreditation at the ministry," Leal said, referring to the Mérieux units that were temporarily suspended from March 2018 pending the end of an ongoing administrative probe at the ministry.
The secretary said he and Mérieux executives discussed "corrective measures," without elaborating.
Mérieux said it is working "to restore all our accreditations in Brazil," adding it is confident that its laboratories fully comply with requirements. Mérieux denies any fraud and is cooperating with the criminal investigation.
The lost accreditations underscore the lasting consequences of the ongoing criminal probe, suggesting authorities are keen to crack down on companies involved in the scheme to evade food safety checks.
Brazilian meatpackers faced a flurry of trade bans over the scandal. BRF, the world's largest chicken exporter, operates 12 plants still banned from selling to the European Union.
Mérieux has a presence in 23 countries, but Brazilian operations represent almost 7 percent of its sales, according to a statement.
BRF said after losing the accreditations, the affected lab units in Goiás state redirected testing required by the ministry to other authorized testing facilities.
Reuters reported last week that the prosecutors had requested information from the Agriculture Ministry regarding actions taken against Mérieux and BRF SA. (Reporting by Ana Mano in São Paulo and Jake Spring in Brasília; editing by Bill Berkrot)