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By John Helmer in Moscow

Two chickens were lying side by side in the refrigerator case of a Moscow shop in the Soviet year of 1988. One, American, was plump and cheerful; the other, Russian, was scrawny and sarcastic. “I’m so much fitter than you,” said the American to the Russian. “Well, at least I died of natural causes,” replied the Russian.

Not funny any more, and no more jokes like that. Today, if the American chicken is to be allowed into the Moscow shop, he will be obliged to pass a medical test which the local poultry has already passed with flying colours. Pigs, too.

Russian bans on imports of US pork and poultry, the principal line of trade between the two countries at present, will be lifted as US government officials have now agreed to accept Russian standards for lowering or eliminating antibiotic and chlorine residues in meat packaged and shipped to Russia.

To end the pork ban, a US meat trader told Fairplay, the US Department of Agriculture has “acquiesced to Russian demands that all animals destined for Russia go off antibiotics for a certain period before slaughter. The Americans were resisting that strongly since it requires special production runs for any meat that might go to Russia, when in fact US plants produce many times more than the Russian market can consume, and simply sell to Russia when and if they have a surplus. Now factories will have to implement specific animal control measures in order to produce for and export to Russia. The net result is that less will be produced, and the price of whatever is offered will be higher.”

Negotiations to lift the import ban on poultry with chlorine residues are also close to completion, according to an announcement by US Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack. The Russian Trade and Inspection Agency (Rospotrebnadzor) had initiated new chlorine limits for poultry processing, commencing in January. The new limit is 0.3 to 0.5 milligrams of chlorine per litre, which is also the potable water standard. The same regulation exists for the European Union (EU) produced poultry, so imports from the EU have not been damaged, an RPN source told Fairplay.

“The science is on the American side,”according to an American trade source, “ but the US is also in dispute with the EU over their overly restrictive regulation. All studies show that little or no chlorine residue remains on the product after treatment with chlorinated water. Although the Russian veterinary service thought the ban could be averted, the Chief Sanitary Officer Gennady Onischenko put his foot down, and refused to postpone his proposed measure further. It was originally scheduled to come into force on January 1, 2009 but was postponed for a year.”

Exporters and importers pin the blame for the chlorine ban on Onishchenko, who, one claims, was “offended that no one at the US Department of Agriculture took his ban threat seriously until the final months of 2009. Perhaps he hopes that by flexing his muscles a bit now, he will earn the respect, or fear, of the US and other countries, whose imports his agency is supposed to be controlling.”

The US trade source noted that “as with chlorine, there is no evidence of adverse health effects from using antibiotics. The opposite is in fact true as animals go to slaughter healthier. But Russia is pretending to be as strict as the European Union on the theory that if it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for us.”

Russia bought 131,342 tonnes of US pork last year, down 33% percent from 2008, according to the USDA. Before the chlorine limit halted US chicken imports, lobbying by Russian poultry produces had led the Russian Agriculture Ministry to announce a government order cutting the 2010 quota for imported poultry by 18% to 780,00 tonnes. US chicken imports were fixed at a new quota of 600,000t, down 20% on last year.

Until this year, one chicken in five on sale in the Russian market came from the US.

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