Shortages loom as ransomware hamstrings the world’s biggest meat producer

By | June 1, 2021
Exterior sign for JBS Greeley Beef Plant.

A ransomware attack has struck the world’s biggest meat producer, causing it to halt some operations in the US, Canada, and Australia while threatening shortages throughout the world, including up to a fifth of the American supply.

Brazil-based JBS SA said on Monday that it was the target of an organized cyberattack that had affected servers supporting North American and Australian IT operations. A White House spokeswoman later said the meat producer had been hit by a ransomware attack “from a criminal organization likely based in Russia” and that the FBI was investigating.

Existential threat

The weekend attack came three weeks after a separate ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline disrupted the availability of gasoline and jet fuel up and down the US East Coast. Late last year, ransomware attacks on hospitals hamstrung their ability to provide emergency services just as the coronavirus was already straining their capacity.

The disruption to JBS is the latest reminder of the existential threat posed by ransomware. Once considered a mere nuisance, ransomware has evolved into a parasite that kills its host, as the scourge increasingly chokes infrastructure and services that are critical to safe and normal operations for millions of people.

“Nobody could have foreseen this coming, but it represents a problem of incredible proportions for the company,” a representative with a red meat processor told Beef Central, a news service covering the Australian meat industry. “All meat companies no doubt spend large amounts of money on cyber security, but it just proves how vulnerable all business may be to breaches—large or small. This will create logistical problems right up and down the supply chain.”

The five biggest JBS beef plants in the US have all halted processing since the outage hit, according to social media posts by JBS and statements from labor unions representing employees. A Canadian JBS beef plant in Brooks, Alberta, canceled shifts for a second day on Tuesday, union officials said. The plant processes almost a third of Canada’s federally inspected cattle.

According to its website, JBS is the world’s biggest producer of meat and poultry and the second-largest global producer of pork. The company operates in 15 countries. JBS Foods US, the company’s US entity, operates nine US-based beef facilities and five pork facilities. Company filings show that US sales account for half of the company’s revenue, while Australia and New Zealand represent 4 percent and Canada represents 3 percent.

JBS said its backup servers weren’t affected by the attack and that it’s actively working with an incident-response firm to get its systems back online as soon as possible. So far, the company has no evidence that customer or employee data has been compromised or misused. Most ransomware groups these days not only lock up victims’ data but also download it and release it publicly if the victim doesn’t pay a ransom.

“Resolution of the incident will take time, which may delay certain transactions with customers and suppliers,” JBS warned.