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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Backs Off Poultry Ban Threat

Russia backed away Monday from its threats to ban U.S. poultry imports on health grounds, and a government official said Washington and Moscow were close to resolving a dispute that has become known as the "chicken war."

Russia's chief veterinary inspector, Vyacheslav Avilov, said the U.S. side had finally "provided us with proposals that satisfy us" regarding Moscow's concerns about salmonella bacteria in U.S. poultry. He said Russia had decided to continue accepting poultry that had already been shipped while negotiations continue.

Russia had threatened to ban all U.S. chicken imports as of Saturday.

"We keep a reasonable position and don't want to interrupt the trade," Avilov said Monday.

He said, however, that Russia is not issuing new permits to U.S. exporters unless a solution is "formalized" at negotiations. A Russian delegation plans to fly to Washington Wednesday for talks.

Russia is the largest export market for American chickens, with total shipments worth $500 million last year. Chicken legs, unpopular in the United States but in demand among Russian consumers, make up the bulk of the shipments. They are known as "Bush's legs," after former President George Bush.

Russia stopped certifying new imports on Feb. 16 after the United States failed to assuage Russian concerns about hygiene standards and salmonella in U.S. poultry. Existing contracts were not affected, but the last licenses expired Saturday.

"We are glad that obstacles seem to be removed. The ban could have ruined the trade which has being built over years," said an official of Soyuzkontrakt, Russia's major poultry importer, who did not wish to be identified.

The main U.S. exporter, Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, Arkansas, also expressed satisfaction with reported progress.

"We know that the Russian delegation is coming this week and hope that the problem will be soon resolved," said Tyson spokesman Archie Schaffer. The Russian market accounts for $180 million in yearly sales for Tyson.

While health grounds were cited as the reason for the threatened ban, some U.S. officials suggested the main motivation was protecting Russia's ailing poultry industry.

The U.S. Agriculture Department has said, however, that salmonella bacteria show up in 25 percent of America's processed poultry. The agency is due to announce an overhaul in poultry and meat inspections soon.

In addition to causing U.S.-Russian trade tensions, the dispute exposed rifts within the Russian government. Despite an announcement early in the week by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin that there would be no import ban, the deputy prime minister in charge of agriculture, Alexander Zaveryukha, insisted as late as Saturday that shipments were being suspended.

Campaign politics in the run-up to June's presidential ballot, in which Boris Yeltsin faces a tough fight for re-election, also may be a factor. The resurgent Communist opposition has supported the ban as a way of helping the domestic poultry industry.

"It was evident that the government would give in and the ban would not be imposed, no matter what officials said," said Anatoly Shutkov, an agriculture expert from the Russian Agriculture Academy. "The government could not resist the Americans now, as they have supported Yeltsin so strongly."

?European Union farm ministers were set Monday to tighten controls on the illegal use of meat-growth hormones and extend a ban on imports of hormone-treated beef from the United States, Reuters reported from Brussels.

Britain was alone in opposing the measure, which also affect imports from Australia, New Zealand and Canada and would sour the atmosphere ahead of talks at the World Trade Organization next week.

The United States complained to the trade watchdog organization Jan. 26 that the EU's ban on imports of hormone-treated beef has no scientific basis and therefore broke international trade rules.

Last month EU member states, except Britain, broadly supported three long-standing proposals to extend the hormone ban to synthetic beta-agonists -- except for medical treatment of horses and pets -- and to tighten controls and sanctions.