Ban Spooks U.S. Chicken Producers

ReutersRussian agriculture officials insist they will follow through on the U.S. poultry ban.
JACKSON, Mississippi -- U.S. agriculture officials aren't sure why Russia has decided to ban American poultry imports. But it's clear, they say, that the ban couldn't have come at a worse time.

Many chicken producers in the United States are only now recovering from plummeting sales that resulted when Russia stopped importing U.S. poultry in 1998 because of its economic collapse. The loss of business had forced some chicken companies to close.

Today, the U.S. poultry industry employs people in 38 states, and half of all poultry exports go to Russia.

"Just in the past 12 months, the industry has gotten its legs back under it, making a little money," said Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer for Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms Inc., the nation's seventh-biggest chicken processor. "Once again -- this time for political and not economic reasons -- we're staring the same thing in the face."

The Russian Agriculture Ministry announced last week that it had stopped issuing import permits for U.S. chicken and other poultry and would impose a full ban Sunday. It was unclear whether health concerns or anger over U.S. trade policies prompted the decision.

Russian media have linked the poultry ban to the long-threatened U.S. tariffs on steel, a major Russian export. U.S. President George W. Bush imposed tariffs of 8 percent to 30 percent on several types of imported steel Tuesday.

U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said the U.S. measure targeted all imports, not just Russian steel. But he said the poultry ban would discourage potential investors and have severe consequences for the economic relationship between the two countries.

Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev said Tuesday the poultry ban was based on "concrete grievances about production quality," Interfax reported.

Agriculture officials say U.S. poultry exporters violated Russian regulations by failing to provide proof of the Russian veterinary department's approval for import, improperly labeling packages and supplying meat from enterprises that did not check for salmonella -- a situation U.S. officials called impossible.

Russian agriculture officials have also expressed concern about what they say is the use of antibiotics and artificial feed additives in U.S. chicken production.

Last year, U.S. producers sold Russia about 1 million tons of poultry worth up to $700 million, according to U.S. trade figures. Russia produced just 564,000 tons.