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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia, U.S. End War Over Chicken

Russia has withdrawn a threat to ban imports of U.S. chicken starting next week as a result of negotiations between Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore, according to officials of both governments.

The proposed ban, first announced last month on the basis of sanitary considerations, had been scheduled to begin March 16. It had led to recriminations between the two countries with U.S. officials and legislators maintaining that the Russian charge of U.S. health violations was a cover for protectionism.

Gore's office issued a statement late Tuesday that a message from Chernomyrdin said the prohibition against U.S. chicken imports would not take place.

Then, during a 30-minute telephone conversation Wednesday with Gore, Chernomyrdin reiterated the stance, saying Russia would not impose the ban on the condition that the United States would closely monitor the quality of chicken exports, Cher will charge the government resentatives at the negotiations to fulfill this agreement," Konnov said. "The questions raised [on quality] should be resolved by the people competent in these matters."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman welcomed the agreement but said the United States was also concerned about the possibility that Russia would impose "very high tariffs" on poultry meat.

George Watts, president of the National Broiler Council, a Washington-based poultry industry group, said on Tuesday, "We're certainly very pleased with the announcement," according to Reuters. "This is what we had asked for and hoped for all along. ... It's going to be beneficial for the poultry industry."

Some commodities analysts, however, tempered any optimism over the deal, noting that it did nothing to lessen the growing Russian attraction to protectionism, most recently reflected by a Chernomyrdin announcement that Russia would start slashing imports in 1996 and by reported plans for a 20 percent hike in import duties.

"I can tell you that I am scared," said one senior Western commodities source, Reuters reported.

Indicative of the shift in policy, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets blasted the Agriculture Ministry for its outspoken criticism of U.S. chicken quality Wednesday, saying that acting Agriculture Minister Alexander Zaveryukha had "destabilized the situation on commodities markets with statements which were not thought out," Reuters reported.

However, Viktor Kolyagin, a representative of the Agriculture Ministry veterinary department, which is responsible for inspecting poultry imports, said he would not expect Russia and the United States to reach a final agreement before the March 16 deadline.

American producers sold more than $500 million worth of chicken to Russia last year, making it the largest export market for U.S. poultry.

Pavel Teplukhin, an economist at the Russian European Center for Economic Policy, questioned the original government move, saying a ban on American chicken imports, which are estimated to make up at least half the Russian market, would only result in higher prices for consumers and prevent needed restructuring.

More than 2,000 tons of American chicken were turned back at the Russian border in 1995 for low quality, according to veterinary department statistics.

Nevertheless, American poultry industry representatives defended the sanitary standards of their output. "The matters the Russians have raised are not health matters, but protectionism," said Richard Loeb, spokesman for the National Broiler Council.

Archie Shaeffer, spokesman for Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, Inc., America's largest poultry producer and a major exporter to Russia, said that his company's products have never been banned from any of their 50 overseas markets.

U.S. chicken, however, is currently barred from entering Australia due to a series of "very stringent" health requirements that American producers find "impossible" to meet, said Toby Moore, spokesman for the Poultry and Egg Expert Council, an industry group based in Atlanta, Georgia. He could not specify the requirements.

The two diseases that have sparked most Russian concerns -- Newcastle and Laryngocracheitis -- pose no threat to humans and are "very rare," he said.

American birds are regularly vaccinated against the illnesses, which can wipe out entire flocks, said a U.S. poultry specialist who asked not to be named.

Many poultry plants are already incurring losses on chicken sales due to depressed prices brought on by speculation over a possible Russian ban on exports, he said.

Other critics of the Russian position have charged that the outcry over American chicken quality was nothing more than a sop to Communist Party supporters and the agricultural sector on the eve of the June presidential elections.

The proposed ban "is an attempt to appease a traditional, popular dislike of imports," said Leonid Zhegalov, a spokesman for Soyuzkontrakt, Russia's largest poultry importer.

Some Moscow shoppers weighed in against the imports. "American chicken has a lot of fat and a strange Western smell like a fish," said a woman shopping at the Garden Ring gastronom on Sadovaya-Triumfalnaya, who only gave her name as Galina Petrovna.

Store clerks tended to agree, saying that consumers only bought American chicken for its lower prices and wider availability. According to government statistics, the average retail price of Russian chicken is around 11,000 rubles ($2.30) a kilogram compared with 8,000 rubles for imported chicken, said Soyuzkontrakt's Zhegalov.

-- Anton Zhigulsky contributed to this article.