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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tainted U.S. Meat on Russian Shelves

Even as governments in Europe and America are preparing to send enormous shipments of meat under a food-aid deal, the news broke this week that thousands of tons of potentially lethally tainted sausages from a U.S. company have for months been on Russian store shelves.

The products from the Arkansas-based Thorn Apple Valley meat plant were declared "unfit for human consumption" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday, and the plant itself was in the process effectively shut down. The USDA said the meat could be tainted with the listeria bacillus, which in some rare cases can cause meningitis.

The USDA had issued a recall order for some Thorn Apple Valley meats in January, but the agency said that by then already some 5.4 million kilograms of the infected meat had been shipped to Russia and South Korea, two of the company's major markets.

"Thorn Apple Valley has shipped to Russia millions of pounds of hot-dog sausages under the brand name 'Wilson,'" said Ray Freedman, a spokesman for the meat plant, in a telephone interview from Arkansas on Wednesday. "Thorn Valley shipped at least 1.5 million pounds [682,000 kilograms] of meat products to Russia per week last year."

U.S. officials and Thorn Apple spokesman Freedman said all proper Russian officials were immediately notified when the recall was announced in January. But Freedman would not name the company's Russia trading partner, and the Russian Health Ministry complained it had only learned of the dubious meat from media reports.

"We have not been supplied with any information about infected meat shipped from the United States," complained a food-safety official at the ministry in a telephone interview on Wednesday, adding that the health ministry was now scrambling to issue a ban on all Thorn Apple Valley brand-name products and a national health warning.

The Russian Agriculture Ministry, however, said it had been properly informed by U.S. colleagues and had already quietly rounded up all but 60 tons of the tainted meat. A harried and exasperated Vasily Seliverstov, the deputy chief of the Agriculture Ministry's veterinary inspection department, said in a brusque telephone interview Wednesday that "everything is under control," and refused further comment.

Reuters, citing a spokesman from Seliverstov's department, said the ministry had accounted for all the tainted meat shipments apart from 52 tons in Moscow, presumed to be still in warehouses, 6.5 tons in Murmansk, and 211 kilograms in St. Petersburg.

News of the tainted U.S. meat comes as the United States prepares to despatch a 220,000-ton meat shipment to Russia and meat is already arriving from the European Union as part of food-aid deals worth a total of $1.5 billion.

Russia last received such Western humanitarian aid in 1992, and at the time it was popular to gripe that Russia was getting only those products too low quality for sale in the West. This year, when Irish beef delivered under the EU meat-delivery program began to arrive in February, it was held up in St. Petersburg's port. At the time, the EU said Russia had unexpectedly insisted on new veterinary controls, a claim Russian authorities denied.

But U.S. officials turned aside suggestions Wednesday that the shipments of infected meat could turn Russian public sentiment against the U.S. aid shipments of meat, which aren't expected for another few months.

"The food-aid deal is a completely separate issue," said a U.S. official working on the aid program, who agreed to comment only on condition of anonymity. "All the meat that is going to be shipped to Russia as part of the food-aid package has to undergo a rigorous testing procedure. The Russian government has demanded substantial documentation and certification."

Although product recalls are not uncommon, the USDA's declaration of all products made by the Arkansas plant as "unfit for human consumption" was an unusually harsh measure.

"Several batches of the Thorn Valley products tested positive for listeria. This, combined with highly unsanitary conditions at the plant, forced us to issue the recall warning in January," said Chris Church, a USDA health-and-safety official, in a telephone interview from Washington.

"The [later] pronouncement of the meat as unfit for human consumption is to prevent the product from being reprocessed or resold under another label."

The listeria bacillus can cause listeriosis - an uncommon but potentially fatal disease. It is rarely contracted by healthy people but can cause pregnant women to miscarry. The disease can also develop into meningitis and is particularly lethal for those with already weakened immune systems, for children and for the elderly.