Is exporting to Russia worth the trouble?

MOSCOW -- Given Russia's erratic history of allowing meat imports, including a current ban on a lot of U.S. pork, is it really worth it for the United States and its agriculture industries to put so much effort into U.S.-Russian trade relations? ...

MOSCOW -- Given Russia's erratic history of allowing meat imports, including a current ban on a lot of U.S. pork, is it really worth it for the United States and its agriculture industries to put so much effort into U.S.-Russian trade relations? Is there any hope that U.S.-Russian agricultural trade relations could be normalized?

With Russia the No. 1 export market for U.S. poultry for many years and No. 4 in pork and No. 5 in beef in 2008, the effort is worthwhile, say U.S. government and meat industry officials based in Moscow. And, yes, U.S. officials may succeed in creating more stability for U.S. exports to Russia -- but only if they understand Russia's many political sensitivities, some agricultural, some geopolitical.

In a recent interview in Russia, Scott Reynolds, the agriculture officer at the U.S. Embassy, noted that Russia has been "a decent export market for many years for U.S. poultry." U.S. agricultural exports to Russia reached $1.9 billion in calendar year 2008, and $800 million of that was in poultry and $400 million in pork, Reynolds said.

It was the fall of communism that created the space for Americans and other agricultural exporting countries to enter the Russian market. As Russia attempted to privatize state and collective farms, livestock production fell compared with the Soviet era. Russia initially welcomed dark poultry meat that was in excess supply in the United States but popular with Russians in processed foods.

"Chicken legs have been a salvation in Russia," said Yuri Barutkin, manager of the St. Petersburg office of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, which represents the beef and pork industries.


But Russian officials never were comfortable importing so much poultry, and in their attempts to develop a domestic industry, occasionally declared U.S. poultry unsanitary and banned it. Russia's insistence on restricting U.S. poultry imports led to an increase in its quota for U.S. pork, which was enjoying a boom in Russia when the H1N1 virus arose. Russian consumers have shown no concern about catching H1NI from pork and still are buying the U.S. pork that makes it into the country, Barutkin said.

The ban on some U.S. pork appears to fit into the Russian government's plans to increase pork, chicken and dairy production. But the difficulty in negotiating with the Russians over agricultural issues is that it's often not clear exactly why the government takes certain actions. When Russia experiences a conflict with another country, one reaction is to try to stop trade. Russians remember that they were feared in the Soviet era, and sometimes the bans seem to be an attempt to prove that they still are a world power that can say "no" to another country's meat.


Over the long run, U.S. beef may not face the same obstacles in Russia that chicken and pork have. Russia gets its domestic beef from old dairy cows. It has no tradition of raising beef for meat and is not good territory for raising corn for feed. Russia imposed a ban on U.S. beef after the discovery of the first cow with mad cow disease in the United States in 2003, but part of that ban has been lifted and sales of U.S. beef soared until lower oil prices and other world economic problems caused it to slow down.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Michael Michener, the administrator of the Agriculture Department Foreign Agriculture Service traveled to Russia in early June, but so far, the Russians have not agreed to reverse the ban Russia has imposed on some U.S. pork imports because of fears over the H1N1 flu. The Russians say the United States has to provide more documentation.

Kirk has said that removal of the "unscientific" bans would help Russia's application to the join the World Trade Organization. But Russia's erratic bans on meat imports raise questions about whether Russia really would want to join the World Trade Organization and live up to its international food safety rules -- or retain its ability to do whatever its wants. And it recently announced its wants its application to be in conjunction with Belaurus and

Kazakhstan, which sets up another obstacle.

President Obama is headed for Moscow in July. Perhaps the Russians are saving any changes to announce them during his visit. Or perhaps they are not.


Even without any breakthrough in the short term, U.S. meat exporters are in Russia for the long haul.

As Barutkin put it, "Russia is a very difficult market, but name me an easy one."

Editor's Note: Hagstrom is a Washington-based correspondent for Agweek.

What To Read Next
Get Local