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By John Helmer, Moscow

The threat of a total ban on the multi-billion dollar frozen chicken trade to Russia, commencing January 1, has been dropped by the head of Russia’s Trade and Inspection Agency (Rospotrebnadzor, RPN), Gennady Onishchenko. Just as he gave no reason for threatening the ban a few days ago, Onishchenko has given no reason for changing his mind, when he announced it through the state news agency, RIA-Novosti, on Saturday.

All chicken meat now imported to Russia is frozen. However, its use in the manufacture of baby and diet foods is banned. After Onishchenko announced the threat of the total import ban, he was opposed by Cherkizovo, one of the largest of Russia’s meat processors. He was also rebuked by Russia’s trade negotiator, Maxim Medvedkov, who said the ban would violate the standards of the World Trade Organization, with which Russia continues to negotiate an accession agreement.

US meat trade sources have frequently charged that Onishchenko’s food safety claims are nothing but camouflage for protectionist measures ordered from him by local commercial interests. He has imposed packaging standards for imported Belarus milk products that were tougher than his agency enforced on domestic Russian milk retailers when the Belarus milk plants were the target of cut-price takeover schemes by their Russian rivals. Russian winemakers and importers say that Onishchenko’s bans on imported Moldovan wine are dictated by Russia’s political conflicts with the Moldovan government.

Onishchenko refuses to answer press questions. Instead, he dictates announcements to local news agencies. To RIA-Novosti, he initially claimed that the ban on frozen chicken imports is almost three years old. “The transition to chilled poultry was approved in March 2008. There will be no turnover of frozen poultry in Russia from January 1, 2011. It is an outdated and rough technology, which leads to a loss of many of the useful qualities of meat,” Onishchenko was quoted as saying early this month.

According to RIA-Novosti, Onishchenko went on: “Everybody knew about it. This is not a new idea. This information was published long ago. All documents are registered in the Justice Ministry. This question was discussed with our producers, scientists, with Russian Academies of Medical and Agricultural Sciences. It is a corporate decision made on the basis of analysis. I have received loads of letters from governors who thank us and say that Russian producers can guarantee chilled poultry deliveries to consumers without deep freezing.”

Onishchenko was also quoted as claiming that “there are technologies of poultry chilling in inert gas, which permits storage of poultry for up to 120 days. You are welcome to import poultry, but only chilled, not frozen. Slackers, who do not want to do anything, are worried. A group of importers, who knew everything, but waited until November, is worried. What’s the difference for them how to poison our people?”

The news agency also cited Sergei Yushin, head of an executive committee at the National Meat Association in Moscow, as commenting that Onishchenko’s technology for chilling poultry in inert gas does not exist. “I can hardly imagine a producer who would be happy with a ban on frozen poultry turnover. Some consumers will be deprived of the product,” Yushin was reported as adding.

RIA-Novosti reported today that in a new statement on November 13 Onishchenko claimed there will be no total ban on frozen chicken imports, and that a limited restriction on using frozen chicken in manufactured food products may be introduced, but it has yet to be spelled out by Onishchenko or his agency what products will be affected.

Onishchenko’s spokesman at RPN, Lyubov Voropayeva, told Fairplay: “I don’t have information that the ban on frozen chicken meat was cancelled.” Asked to clarify why the ban was threatened in the first place, she said “it was introduced in accordance with Ruling 66 of the Chief Sanitary Doctor, issued in 2008.”

The text of Ruling 66, dated December 4, 2008, provides no clarification of how frozen chicken adversely affects consumer health. Instead, the ruling suggests that when frozen chicken thaws, many samples produce more liquid than is allowed for by the RPN standard. “Rospotrebnadzor…held supervisory measures in respect of legal persons and individual entrepreneurs engaged in the production and trafficking of poultry and poultry products. As a result of studies of poultry products for the amount of the mass fraction of fluid that separates when thawed, it was revealed that in 26% of them, the fluid exceeded 4%.”

Yushin was asked what he thinks of the 4% fluid standard and the lifting of the ban threat. He responded:
“It would be better to ask Mr Onishchenko [about the inert gas]. Science is not aware of a chilling technology of poultry meat and pork in inert gas. Meat is not chilled in gas at all. There are technologies for packaging and storing in a gaseous environment, including the use of inert gases. They are quite expensive, and therefore are not widely used in Russia, where the purchasing power of people is limited, while the level of sanitary conditions of many companies leaves much to be desired. It is this level that provides shelf life, not gases.

“Moreover, the statement that after chilling in the inert gas poultry meat and pork can be kept chilled up to 120 days and that Russian producers have such opportunities, to put it mildly, causes extreme perplexity. For reference: poultry meat chilled according to GOST [state standard] is kept no longer than five days. The shelf life of parts of poultry is even shorter. However, a number of modern enterprises with high sanitary culture at all stages from production and processing to transportation and sales achieve a shelf life of poultry meat in vacuum packaging without freezing of up to 7-10 days — in extreme cases up to 12 days. Furthermore, some positions of product lines, such as specialty meats and minced meat, should be sold or frozen as soon as possible, literally within one day. As for pork, here the maximum shelf life of the world’s leading manufacturers is from 30 to 60 days. It depends on dozens of factors. Regarding Russia, except for individual businesses that have managed to achieve the shelf life of chilled pork from 14 to 20 days, all the rest of manufacturers cannot ensure a shelf life of the product of over 10 days without freezing, even in a gas environment.

“Mr Onishchenko has apparently confused poultry meat, pork and beef. Due to the chemical properties of beef, and taking into account the latest advances in genetics, feeding, slaughtering, processing, packaging and storage, the leading foreign manufacturers have a longer shelf life of this type of boneless meat in vacuum without freezing, ranging from 60 days (the EU, Australia) to 120 days (South America). Argentina, in particular, offers chilled beef with a shelf life of up to 150 days. It has nothing to do with hormones, GMOs, antibiotics or voodoo spells. One of the main conditions of such results is the rigorous observance of a constant temperature routine from the packaging table to the pan and impeccable sanitary and hygiene standards at the workplace. We have not learned to observe these conditions yet. Therefore, in Russia frozen meat is certainly generally safer than chilled.”

Cherkizovo is also reluctant to inflame Onishchenko. Asked to comment on threats his agency has made towards the company, spokesman Irina Ostryakova said: “For the moment, we are studying this information.”

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