Brazilian prosecutors are seeking to fine 26 beef producers a total of $282 million for buying cattle raised in illegally deforested Amazon areas or on indigenous reservations, the federal prosecution service said on Monday.
The list included one major Brazilian food producer - Brasil Foods - which faces fines totaling 17.6 million ($8.90 million), over accusations that it bought 1,762 cattle reared on illegally-cleared land in Mato Grosso state.
About half those alleged purchases were made by Brasil Foods' Sadia unit. The alleged purchases are a minute number compared to the nearly 11 million cattle and swine Brasil Foods slaughters each year.
Prosecutors calculated the fines for each company based on the number of animals raised in illegal conditions that they are alleged to have bought. Prosecutors say the 26 companies bought 55,699 such cattle between January and September 2012.
Brasil Foods spokesman Kristhian Kaminski said the company had not received official notification of any legal proceedings or of their exact nature, and therefore could not comment.
Several other companies faced fines for buying cattle raised with the use of slave labor, prosecutors said. The cases will go before judges in the states of Mato Grosso, Amazonas and Rondonia where the offences are alleged to have taken place.
"We want these companies to stop buying in these areas and in this way, avert further deforestation," Rodrigo Timoteo da Costa e Silva, prosecutor in Mato Grosso state, told Reuters.
On its website, Brasil Foods says it checks the websites of government agencies to ensure it does not buy cattle from farms in illegal areas or those on a slave labor black list.
Prosecutors said the offences were detected during monitoring of the companies' activities after all 26 refused to sign up to an accord under which they would have had to agree to avoid the practices for which they may now be fined.
Illegal cattle ranching has been one of the major drivers of Amazon deforestation in the last few decades together with illegal logging. Deforestation levels have fallen dramatically in the last decade after a government crackdown.
($1 = 1.9782 Brazilian reals)