Russia demanded the right to inspect U.S. processing plants during negotiations in Moscow yesterday over the banned import of American chicken, but bewildered industry officials in Maryland and other poultry-producing regions said the Russians already have that right.
The talks continued yesterday for a second day over the Russian ban, which went into effect Sunday. Moscow says it is worried about sanitary conditions at U.S. plants and the use of antibiotics and feed additives.
"They have the right [to inspect plants], and they have used it - frequently," said Dr. Roger Olson, the state veterinarian with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "I was with them a few years back, when they inspected an Allen [Family Foods Inc.] plant" in Cordova.
Mike Pilcher, vice president of operations at Allen, said the Russians have inspected all three of its Delmarva Peninsula plants. In addition to its operation in Cordova, Allen has processing plants in Hurlock and Seaford, Del. The three plants employ 2,200.
Toby Moore, a spokesman for the U.S. Poultry and Egg Export Council, said the Russians have had inspection rights since 1996.
"They have already inspected about 400 processing plants and cold storage plants in this country," said Moore, whose group is involved in the promotion of poultry products worldwide.
"They approve the plants, and then our government inspectors sign off on all exports. They can come and inspect plants any time they want to. We will set it up for them. We handle the logistics."
He said he did not know why the Russians would be making such a demand.
Russia is pushing at the talks for permission to send delegations to inspect U.S. plants that have shipped low-quality poultry to Russia or failed to produce required delivery documents, the Interfax news agency quoted Mikhail Kravchuk, Russia's chief veterinary inspector, as saying.
He did not name specific companies.
In the talks were agriculture and trade officials from both countries. Moscow is also upset about U.S. sanctions on steel imports from Russia and other countries.
The trade disputes have aggravated relations ahead of a presidential summit scheduled to take place in May.
H. Wesley Towers, the state veterinarian in Delaware, conceded that it is possible that low-quality products could have been shipped to Russia from U.S. processing or cold storage plants.
"But the Russians have the right to say, `We don't want any more chicken from XYZ company unless we inspect the plant,'" he said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that under a 1996 agreement between the two counties, all U.S. plants exporting poultry to Russia must be reviewed and approved by Russia before any shipments are allowed.
Pilcher, the Allen Foods executive, said the Russian ban could eventually have a serious impact on Maryland's giant poultry industry as well as that of 37 other chicken-producing states if a settlement is not reached soon.
He said much of the 1.1 million metric tons of poultry - valued at $630 million - destined for Russia will end up on the domestic market if the ban is not lifted.
"That will create a serious supply-and-demand situation," he said. "There will be a lot more supply than demand, and we all know what will happen - prices will drop. It will not be a fun time in this industry."
Unlike a beef processor, Pilcher said, poultry companies are not able to stop buying chickens overnight.
"The birds keep coming at us," he said of chicks that have been hatched and are being grown for shipment to a processing plant. "We own the chickens, and we can't stop them from coming. It's not like other food processors."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.