Chicken wars Protectionist envy: Aggressive U.S. poultry exports create a backlash from Russia to India.

March 16, 1996

THEY CALL THEM "Bush legs" because the first American chicken quarters flooded Russia during George Bush's presidency. In just three years, American chicken parts cheap, attractive and meaty have taken Russia by such a storm U.S. exports of poultry products now amount to $600 million a year. To make things even sweeter for Maryland's Perdue and Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, Russians clamor for dark meat while Americans prefer white.

American chicken parts have become so popular throughout the world that bureaucrats from Russia to India have been trying to build protective barries in recent months, claiming U.S. birds contained harmful chemicals.

"We need guarantees that these birds are disease-free, quality products that there is no salmonella, no bad chemical additives, or the like," says Vyacheslav Avilov, a Russian agriculture ministry official.

Anyone who has seen the unsavory domestic chickens sold in Russia understands how laughable these arguments are. Most Russian chickens are scrawny, bruised birds that seem to have died either of cold or in a traffic accident. No wonder the American birds are so attractive to Russian consumers.

Like the Indians before, Russians recently backed away from their threat to close the market to American birds. But it is unlikely that either side has forgotten the idea; they probably are just regrouping and thinking about new strategies.

If Russia and India want to make their local poultry industries competitive, they should study what makes the giant American producers so successful they can ship their birds half a world away and still beat the local prices. Whatever the secret is, it isn't protectionism.

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