Prosecutors in Brazil’s biggest city have opened an inquiry into a controversial plan to feed poorer citizens and schoolchildren with a flour made out of food close to its sell-by date that critics have described as “human pet food”.
João Doria, the populist, conservative mayor of São Paulo, and the city’s Catholic cardinal, Dom Odilo Scherer, have said that the product, called farinata (farinha is flour in Portuguese), will help alleviate hunger at no cost to the city’s government.
But prosecutors have demanded more information about the nutritional content of the new food and what testing, if any, has been done after concerns were raised by the Regional Council of Nutritionists and other bodies.
“There is an uncertainly over the nutritional value of this food,” José Bonilha, a São Paulo state prosecutor, told the Guardian. “What were the tests and the documents that authorised the announcement of its introduction?”
Doria is a multimillionaire businessman (and former host of Brazil’s version of The Apprentice) who won a landslide victory in São Paulo last year and is touted as a possible candidate for next year’s presidential elections.
Launching the scheme on Wednesday, he described farinata as “solidarity food” and said it was “made to combat hunger and also supplement people’s alimentation”.
The mayor then broke up a piece of bread he said had been made with farinata and handed it around, explaining that journalists at the event had also eaten bread made with the flour.
“I am offended when people say it is pet food,” Cardinal Scherer said at the same event. “The concern is to recall food from restaurants that is ready for use and for it to be safely put on the table of those who are hungry rather than thrown away.”
Rosana Perrotti, founder of Plataforma Sinergia (Synergy Platform), the Catholic organisation that developed farinata, said it came in the form of a flour or as pellets and showed off vials of powder made from foodstuffs such as pasta and manioc. The organisation’s website says it has received a blessing from Pope Francis.
“We only process good food, following techniques that have always been applied in the industry,” she said. “In Brazil we are able to prolong its useful life by at least two years.”
Poverty, homelessness and unemployment have risen in recent years as Brazil struggled with a debilitating recession. But nutritionists attacked the plan, arguing that nobody knows exactly what farinata is made of – nor even whether it is safe.
“It is not food, it is an ultra-processed product,” said Marly Cardoso, a professor of public health and nutrition at the Federal University of São Paulo. “You don’t know what is in it.”
Cardoso said given Brazil’s obesity epidemic – caused in part by cheap and aggressively marketed fast food – the city should instead do more to encourage a people to choose a healthy diet.
Last year São Paulo published a comprehensive plan to improve the city’s diet with a detailed series of measures that included promoting street markets selling products produced by family farmers, and controlling the prices of fruit and vegetables. Cardoso described it as “a model of managing nutritional problems in the 21st century.” But the plan was dropped by Doria’s administration.
Cardoso also criticised a law sanctioned by the mayor that gives tax breaks to companies donating food as part of his hunger eradication policy.
“Is city hall trying to resolve the problems of these companies who are looking for a use for this food that they can’t sell?” she said. “It is a situation of collective embarrassment.”
Vivian Zollar, a nutritionist and member of Regional Council of Nutritionists for São Paulo and Minas Gerais states said she was worried about plans reported in local media to give farinata to schoolchildren because the council had not been able to confirm that the product had undergone the safety and nutritional tests legally required for school meals.
“We need to know if this product is safe, if it has conditions to be offered,” she said. “Without this information it is very difficult to be sure.”
Synergy Platform, the makers of farinata, did not reply to questions from the Guardian aboutthe product’s nutritional composition, which companies had donated food, and what kind of testing had been carried out.
But in a statement the company said: “The nutritional composition of the diverse types of farinata possible will depend on the excess food not sold.” It added that farinata was tested for “nutritional composition, exemption of microorganisms, bacteria and toxins. These tests are carried out by entities with great reputations.”
Asked if farinata had been properly tested, neither the mayor’s office, nor São Paulo city’s secretariat of education, nor its health department responsible for testing new foods, replied immediately.