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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why U.S. Chicken Bugs the Russians

Vladimir Fisinin knows American chicken, and he says it's dangerous.

As the vice president of the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the general director of the Inter-regional Scientific Center for Pedigree Poultry Farming, Fisinin has been studying chickens for decades.

He dismisses accusations by Washington that Moscow's ban on U.S. poultry imports, implemented March 10, is a tit-for-tat move for punitive U.S. tariffs on steel announced just a few days before.

"I would like to note," he said, "that American farmers are injecting the chickens they grow with antibiotics used to treat people. This is prohibited in Russia."

The danger, according to Fisinin -- and many other experts from around the world -- is that antibiotics such as penicillin, chlortetracyclin and erythromycin, which are commonly used to treat human maladies, are used by U.S. poultry farmers in staggeringly large dosages and accumulate in the meat they produce; ingesting this meat then reduces the immune system of the person eating it and increases the likelihood of an allergic reaction.

"It is dangerous, especially for children and old people," he said.

The European Union -- no stranger to health issues regarding meat -- banned U.S. poultry imports in 1998. China did the same, as did several other nations, including Ukraine in January.

U.S. officials and poultry farmers insist they have the highest health standards in the world and the antibiotics they use disappear by the time chickens are eaten.

However, even within the United States a growing number of prominent health organizations, scientists, politicians and consumer rights groups are calling for a ban, or at least a restriction, on what they say is the dangerous overuse of antibiotics. The routine use of antibiotics has become so prevalent, they argue, that it is helping to create new super strains of harmful or fatal drug-resistant diseases.

Some 70 percent, or 9 million kilograms, of all antibiotics used in the United States every year are administered to healthy chickens and other animals to make them grow bigger and compensate for unhygienic conditions, according to KAW, a U.S. coalition dedicated to eliminating the inappropriate use of antibiotics in farm animals.

Identifying it as a major cause of antibiotic resistance among people, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and numerous other leading health organizations have called for a sharp reduction in the agricultural use of antibiotics.

According to a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine that was published in October, one in three samples of supermarket poultry was contaminated with salmonella and, of the 13 strains found, 83 percent were resistant to at least one antibiotic, while 53 percent were resistant to at least three. And about 16 percent of the isolated bacteria were resistant to ceftriaxone, an antibiotic that is the treatment of choice for severe cases of salmonella in children.

For Russia, the quality of U.S. chicken is a national health issue. Beginning in 1989, under the first President George Bush, the United States began exporting enormous quantities of chicken to Russia -- which came to be called Bush legs. Thirteen years later, U.S. poultry exporters earn $600 million a year here and account for two-thirds of the market.

"The ban on U.S. poultry should have been implemented a long time ago," said Ivan Vasilenko, a leading chemist and the deputy head of the State Scientific Center for Antibiotics.

"All over the world, antibiotics must be separated into those that are for animal use and those that are for human use," he said.

People who are allergic to a certain kind of antibiotic could suffer an allergic reaction if they eat meat from a chicken injected with that antibiotic, Vasilenko said.

But the real danger, he said, is that when chickens are fed with antibiotics, bugs form in their flesh that are resistant to that antibiotic.

"It is sometimes impossible to treat a person infected in this way, as the only known medicine against a disease that carries the bug is an antibiotic to which the bug has resistance," Vasilenko said. "Chicken, just like any kind of meat, cannot be germ-free. If there is a germ of salmonella in it, which is quite often, and that salmonella has mutated, what can be done?"

Tatyana Guseva, an allergist at the Institute of Allergology and Clinical Immunology, said that even minute amounts of antibiotics ingested from eating chicken can be harmful.

"An overdose of antibiotics might occur when a patient is treated with antibiotics that neither the doctor nor the patient knew was already in his body. This could happen from ingesting food containing antibiotics," she said.

"The key is for producers of food to clearly state what is in their products. A respectable company will inform everyone what its product consists of."

What worries specialists like Guseva and Vasilenko is that no one knows exactly what the health consequences in Russia have been from eating the meat of chicken treated with antibiotics because no one has ever had the money to do a proper study of the issue.

"A thorough study is needed," Vasilenko said. "But who will pay for it?"

Indeed, this in one of the main debating points of the visiting 12-member team of U.S. trade, health and agriculture officials currently negotiating with their Russian counterparts in an effort to lift the ban.

"The Russian government was asked: 'Did you find any antibiotics in our chicken?' And they said: 'We can't afford to find it out,'" a source close to the U.S. delegation said Tuesday.

"Russia uses antibiotics, too," he said. "If you don't monitor, how do you know they don't use it. Just because it's not approved it doesn't mean they don't use it.

"In America, each facility has a state inspector. We monitor, we know the quality of our chicken. Russian farms are not monitored, most of them are not even clean," he added, with obvious frustration.

An Agriculture Ministry spokesman countered the accusation, saying that unlike the United States, where inspectors are on the payroll of producers, Russian producers are subject to spot-inspections several times a year.

Last week, U.S. negotiators confirmed that their producers used antibiotics and dosages prohibited in Russia. Doses of tetracycline, for example, are 200 times the legal limit. They also admitted to using arsenic to make their chicken more aesthetically pleasing.

Despite the intense pressure from the Americans, however, the Russians are sticking to their guns.

Optimistic remarks from U.S. officials that they expected the ban to be lifted by the end of last week proved unfounded, as negotiations entered their second week Tuesday with no end in sight.

Nevertheless, the U.S. delegation said it will stay as long as it takes to lift the ban and postponed talks with officials in Kiev this week aimed at lifting Ukraine's ban.

Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev on Tuesday reiterated Russia's position that it will not lift the ban until new health regulations are put in place.

Ironically, the entire U.S. poultry industry is currently operating under guidelines dictated by and approved by the Russian Agriculture Ministry's veterinary service in 1996, according to Don Ford, president and CEO of American Poultry International, Ltd., which represents more than a dozen exporters.

"The chicken we eat is produced under Russian regulations," Ford said by telephone from Mississippi.

"Nothing has changed in the processing since 1996. The only different thing is that there are different people in the Russian veterinary service," he said.

Sherwood Gorbach, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston who has written widely on the subject, said that in the last few weeks, several major poultry producers announced that they will no longer use antibiotics that are used to treat people.

He also said some major restaurant chains have recently refused to buy chicken from companies using antibiotics.

"There is a lot of pressure," Gorbach said, adding that there is currently a bill before Congress that would restrict the use of antibiotics.

"I think they will have to ban using antibiotics in chicken altogether. That is what is happening," he said.

As for the Russian ban, Gorbach called it "inappropriate" because "by the time the chicken comes to market there is no antibiotic left. ... I think that Russian pressure has been beneficial, but it just went too far."

The World Health Organization last year called the world's attention to the growing dangers of antibiotic resistance in people, in part because of the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture.

"Today we live in the world where drug resistance is spreading fast and growing numbers of front-line drugs are becoming ineffective," WHO wrote in a report.

"There is indisputable evidence of resistance to medicines used to treat meningitis, sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea and syphilis, infections acquired in hospitals and even to the new classes of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs used to treat HIV," WHO said.

"In several countries tuberculosis strains have become resistant to at least two of the most effective drugs used against the disease. It is a global problem. No country can afford to ignore it, no country can afford not to respond. At the same time, actions taken in any one country will have clear and positive results around the world."