By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Russia’s suspension of beef, pork and turkey exports from the United States is about trade issues and not food safety, according to an official with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc. (NCBA).
The ban went into effect Feb. 11. Russian officials have said they took the action because of their concerns over the use of the feed additive ractopamine in U.S. meat exported to their country.
“There’s no logical reason why they have done this,” said Kent Bacus, NCBA’s director of legislative affairs. “This product (ractopamine) is safe and has been approved by an international body, Codex (the Codex Alimentarius Commission).
“For us, it’s a matter of having objective scientific standards in place rather than caving to other countries. We prefer decisions based on science and market demands and not on politics.”
U.S. beef exports to Russia totaled more than $300 million in 2012, he added.
Ractopamine converts energy into muscle instead of fat, Bacus stated, noting the additive has been around for several years. By the time an animal is taken to slaughter the additive has already passed out of its system, he said.
Ractopamine is a safe additive that is used in 27 countries, according to a statement by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. Russia is requiring a zero tolerance for the presence of the additive, the statement explained. U.S. meat is produced to the highest safety standards in the world and the United States is disappointed in the action taken by Russia, it continued.
“Russia has disregarded the extensive and expert scientific studies conducted by the international food safety standards body, Codex, which has repeatedly concluded that animal feed containing the additive ractopamine is completely safe for livestock and for humans that consume their meat,” the statement said.
“Russia’s failure to adopt the Codex standards raises questions about its commitment to the global trading system. Despite repeated U.S. requests to discuss the safety of ractopamine, Russia has refused to engage in any constructive dialogue and, instead, has simply suspended U.S. meat imports.”
U.S. pork exports to Russia totaled about $268 million last year, up 24 percent from 2011, according to figures provided by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). The move by Russia was not a surprise, said Nicholas D. Giordano, NPPC’s vice president and counsel for international affairs.
“Russia has used a series of barriers in recent years to limit pork exports from the United States,” he said. “Ractopamine is the issue du jour. There are other issues as well. The common thread is that none of these barriers are legitimate. They are not based on science.”
Russia has not conducted a risk assessment regarding any of these barriers, which are at odds with Russia’s World Trade Organization commitments, Giordano noted. NPPC is working closely with other industry groups and the U.S. government in an attempt to get the situation resolved, he added.
The announcement that turkey would be included in the ban caught the industry by surprise because none of the major U.S. companies approved to export turkey to Russia use ractopamine, said Toby Moore, vice president of communications for the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council.
These companies have assured the National Turkey Federation they don’t use ractopamine, even though the additive is fully approved for use by the U.S. government, he noted. Under a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia, all U.S. plants that process turkey or chicken must undergo inspection by Russian veterinarians in order to be approved to export.
Russian officials have said they included turkey in the ban because “our government cannot provide them the assurance that ractopamine is not used,” he added.
The Russian market for U.S. turkey is small compared to some other countries, Moore stated. Last year, the United States exported more than $8 million worth of turkey to Russia, $372 million to Mexico and $71 million to China. Most of the product exported is mechanically separated turkey meat that is used by meat processors in the other countries, he said.
Moore said he doesn’t know the status of talks designed to resolve the dispute between the two countries. “They want our government to provide them with the assurance (that ractopamine is not used),” he said. “We’re hopeful they’ll be able to work out some sort of way to provide them with that assurance.”
Bacus said he has heard a couple of different reasons as to why Russia may have decided on the ban. Some people see it as retaliation to human rights legislation the Congress approved last year as a part of granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations status to Russia, he said. The legislation bars Russian human rights violators from visiting the United States and freezes any assets they may have in U.S. banks.
Russia may also be trying to establish its own herds and is attempting to protect its domestic market as it’s growing those herds, Bacus said. The ban also applies to meat products from Mexico, Canada and Brazil, he stated.
“We’ve been selling U.S. beef into Russia for several years without any trouble,” he said. “It’s been a positive market for us. We’ve had no issues or complaints from our customers. They’re trying to restrict areas for our products. It’s very frustrating.”
Russia is the sixth-largest market for U.S. beef, Bacus said.
“This will disrupt our export market,” he explained. “But there has been a lot of growth in Asian markets. This is a very unfortunate situation. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.”