Meat producer JBS says it expects most plants to be up and running on Wednesday

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – A ransomware attack on the world’s largest meat-processing company disrupted production worldwide just weeks after a similar incident shut down a pipeline in the United States.

However, Brazil’s JBS SA said late Tuesday that it had made “significant progress” in dealing with the cyberattack and expects the “vast majority” of its plants to be operational by Wednesday.

“Our systems are coming back online and we are not wasting resources to combat this threat,” said Andre Nogueira, CEO of JBS USA, in a statement.

Earlier, the White House said that JBS had notified the United States of a ransom demand from a criminal organization likely based in Russia. White House Chief Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House and the Department of Agriculture have contacted the company several times this week.

JBS is the second largest producer of beef, pork and chicken in the US If it closed for even one day, the US would lose nearly a quarter of its beef processing capacity, or the equivalent to 20,000 beef cows, according to Trey Malone, assistant professor of agriculture at Michigan State University.

The closures reflect the reality that modern meat processing plants are highly automated, for both food and worker safety reasons. Computers collect data at multiple stages of the production process, and ordering, billing, shipping, and other functions are all electronic.

JBS, which has not publicly stated that the attack was ransomware, said the cyberattack affected the servers that support its operations in North America and Australia. Backup servers were not affected and it said it was not aware of any customer, vendor or employee data being compromised.

Malone said the disruption could further drive up meat prices ahead of summer barbecues. Even before the attack, U.S. meat prices were rising due to coronavirus shutdowns, bad weather, and high absenteeism from plants. The United States Department of Agriculture has said it expects prices for beef to rise 1% to 2% this year, poultry up 1.5% and pork 2%. and 3%.

JBS, which is a majority shareholder in Pilgrim’s Pride, did not say which of its 84 facilities in the United States were closed Monday and Tuesday due to the attack. He said JBS USA and Pilgrim’s were able to ship meat from almost all of their facilities on Tuesday. The company also said it was moving toward resuming plant operations in the United States and Australia. Several of the company’s pork, poultry and prepared food plants were operational Tuesday and its Canadian beef plant resumed production, it said.

Earlier Tuesday, a union official confirmed that two shifts were canceled at the company’s largest U.S. meat plant in Greeley, Colorado. Some plant changes in Canada were also canceled on Monday and Tuesday, according to JBS Facebook posts.

In Australia, thousands of meat plant workers were out of work for a second day on Tuesday, and a government minister said it could be days before production resumes. JBS is Australia’s largest meat and food processing company, with 47 facilities across the country, including slaughterhouses, feedlots and meat processing sites.

Jean-Pierre said that the White House “is engaging directly with the Russian government on this matter and is sending the message that the responsible states do not harbor ransomware criminals.” The FBI is investigating the incident and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is offering technical support to JBS.

Additionally, the USDA has spoken with several major meat processors in the US to alert them to the situation, and the White House is assessing any potential impacts on the country’s meat supply.

JBS has more than 150,000 employees around the world.

This is not the first time that a ransomware attack has targeted a food company. Last November, the Milan-based Campari Group said it was the victim of a ransomware attack that caused a temporary technology outage and compromised some business and personal data.

In March, Molson Coors announced a cyber attack that affected its production and shipping. Molson Coors said it was able to get some of its breweries up and running after 24 hours; others took several days.

Ransomware expert Brett Callow, a threat analyst at security firm Emsisoft, said companies like JBS are ideal targets.

“They play a critical role in the food supply chain, and threat actors likely believe this increases their chances of getting a quick payoff,” Callow said.

Mark Jordan, who follows the meat industry as CEO of Leap Market Analytics, said the disruption could be minimal assuming JBS recovers in the next few days. Meat processors are used to dealing with delays due to a number of factors, including industrial accidents and power outages, and they make up for lost production with additional shifts, he said.

“Multiple plants owned by a major meatpacker going offline for a couple of days is a big headache, but it’s manageable assuming it doesn’t extend much beyond that,” he said.

Jordan said it will help the demand for American meat decline overall for a few weeks between Memorial Day and the Independence Day holiday on July 4.

But attacks can wreak havoc. Last month, a gang of hackers shut down the Colonial Pipeline, the largest gas pipeline in the United States, for nearly a week. The shutdown prompted long lines and panic buying at gas stations throughout the southeast. Colonial Pipeline confirmed that it paid out $ 4.4 million to hackers.

Jason Crabtree, co-founder of QOMPLX, a Virginia-based artificial intelligence and machine learning company, said that Marriott, FedEx, and others have also been targeted by ransomware attacks. He said companies must do a better job of quickly spotting bad actors in their systems.

“Many organizations cannot find and fix different vulnerabilities faster than the adversaries they are fighting with,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree said the government also plays a critical role, and said President Joe Biden’s recent executive order on cybersecurity, which requires all federal agencies to use basic security measures, such as multi-factor authentication, is a good start.

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Durbin reported from Detroit. AP writer Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed.

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