Menu for talks at summit is sure to include chicken

Russia's obstruction of U.S. poultry imports is major issue for farmers

May 24, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Natalia Polyakova is a poultry vendor at the Belorussky market here and, in her way, expert in matters of US.-Russian trade, especially when it comes to chickens.

"We are not allowed to sell American chicken," Polyakova bluntly declared yesterday, pointing out the unmistakable effect of Russia's ban on U.S. chicken imports. "Their poultry was of bad quality."

She was dutifully stating the official line from the Russian government. Truth be told, though, she seemed less than certain about her words.

Thinking for a moment, she recalled that for years before the ban she had sold chicken from the United States, "and no people came in here to complain."

The chicken ban put in place in March instantly cost U.S. poultry producers 38 percent of their international sales. The ban has officially been lifted, but U.S. officials say the Russian government has put so many obstacles in the way of resuming shipments that it might as well still be in force. Only a few shipments have been permitted since the ban ended.

In the capital, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov announced that a ban on U.S. chicken would remain in place indefinitely.

The dispute not only threatens to bring an edge to what was expected to be a mostly cozy summit between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, but it is the big reason why Bush will be unable to promise Putin that Congress will lift trade restrictions dating from the Cold War.

Members of Congress from poultry states are refusing to approve that offer until Bush takes care of the poultry problem.

"We are pretty proud of our chickens, and we really don't like when people take potshots at them," said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat whose state, along with parts of Maryland and Virginia, make up the Delmarva Peninsula, home to scores of poultry companies that send their meat to Russia.

"I know they have to talk about missiles," Carper said of Bush and Putin. "But the president also has an opportunity on his visit to get our chickens the fair treatment they deserve."

U.S. lawmakers say the chicken ban was a retaliatory strike from Russia after Bush imposed tariffs on steel imports to the United States.

Not so, say Russian officials, who insist that agriculture inspectors here began picking up signs of salmonella in chicken arriving from the United States.

"It looks like they don't care about Russian consumers," Igoshin Igor, a deputy in the Russian Duma who sits on an agriculture committee, said of the U.S. government. "It is because the American officials don't see any reason for worry that the problems emerged. They don't look, that's why they don't see."

Shoppers perusing the poultry counters in the Moscow market yesterday seemed perplexed by the ban. They said they approved a ban if its purpose was to give more business to Russian chicken growers -- but expressed surprise that their government suddenly began talking about how dangerous it is to eat chicken from the United States.

"I imagine American and Russian chickens are grown in the same way, so I don't believe the rumors," said Dmitri Styopin, 22, as he meandered through the market at lunchtime. "I'm always one who prefers Russian-made stuff. But I don't want to hurt the Americans."

U.S. and Russian officials say the two presidents will almost certainly talk about chicken during Bush's visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg. There is no sign of any immediate resolution. So far, Putin has been fairly quiet on the issue of poultry.

The tradition of U.S. chicken in Russian markets was begun by Bush's father, who in 1991 approved a major shipment of food -- including chicken leg quarters -- to the Soviet Union, which was in desperate need of aid.

Many Russians were so appreciative -- and became so fond of dark meat -- that they named the food after the U.S. president. Russians still call chicken leg quarters "Bush legs."

Russians eat an average of 33 pounds of chicken a year; Americans eat an average of 77 pounds. But Russians' appetite for dark meat opened up a new market for American producers. With white meat in much higher demand in the United States, they were happy to sell their dark meat in Russia -- at a price Russian consumers could afford.

Some U.S. producers say they will be forced out of business if they are not allowed back in Russia. But they say the Russians will ultimately pay a dearer price: Soon, they say, many Russians on fixed incomes, especially outside the borders of relatively wealthy Moscow, will no longer be able to afford chicken because Russian poultry is more expensive.

At Polyakova's bustling meat counter yesterday, Russian-grown Bush legs were selling for 26 rubles a kilogram (about a dollar). That was up from 21 rubles when Polyakova was allowed to sell American meat.

So far, she said, she has had no complaints about the higher price. A few customers wanted to be sure they were not buying American chicken, after hearing about possible salmonella.

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