Imports of U.S. chicken have Russians stewing

American birds compete with home-grown fowl

January 26, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PETELINSKAYA, Russia - After competing in the Cold War, the arms race and the space race, the United States and Russia are still locked in an epic competition.

This time it's over who can raise plump, affordable chickens.

Vladimir A. Sedikh, deputy director of production at the Petelinskaya Chicken Farm here, recently slipped a white lab coat over his suit and escorted visitors through a gleaming, year-old processing plant.

From the point that the clucking chickens were hung up on the conveyor belt until the machinery spat out packaged broiler parts, the birds were rarely touched by human hands. It seemed a testament to technology, investment and modern food processing.

But Russian growers still lag far behind the United States when it comes to the cost per pound of meat. Nor can they produce chickens fast enough to meet the rising demands of Russian consumers. "We're not working efficiently enough," Sedikh said.

U.S. growers earn almost $700 million a year in chicken exports to Russia, making poultry the United States' most valuable export to Russia. Though not as dramatic as arms treaties or human rights, the U.S.-Russian chicken trade has been debated by Congress and the Russian parliament - each side suspicious about the other's practices. The Kremlin's efforts to limit chicken imports from the United States remain an obstacle to Russia's entry into the World Trade Organizaton.

The chickens play a significant role in Maryland's economy. As the eighth-largest poultry state, Maryland produces 1.4 billion pounds of broiler meat a year. Industry leaders Perdue, Allen Family Foods Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. all operate plants on the Eastern Shore and market their birds in Russia.

Russian politicians resent their country's continuing dependence on frozen American chickens. They also object to the fact that most birds imported here come in the form of leg quarters, the dark meat scorned by many American consumers. "Russia," the country's agriculture minister once said, "is not a rubbish dump for poor quality food."

American officials, meanwhile, grumble about the fickle Russian market. Over the past decade, U.S. chickens were from time to time frozen out of Russia by red tape, the collapse of the ruble and a salmonella scare that triggered the inspection of 341 American poultry plants by Russian health officials. Scores of plants were ruled ineligible to ship meat to Russia, but U.S. officials and producers say the ruling was aimed more at limiting imports than answering legitimate safety concerns.

To further protect Russian producers, officials here imposed a quota on American poultry last year, cutting the legal importation of U.S. chickens by about 30 percent.

But both countries need the trade. The United States produces more chicken than it eats, while Russia grows only about half of what it needs. Russian consumers, especially retirees whose pensions are less than $50 a month, welcome American chicken leg quarters as a cheap way to put meat on the table.

"We have the product, they have the money," said Richard L. Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council in Washington.

Russia, with its vast agricultural lands, came to depend on a country a hemisphere away for chicken after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which brought about the collapse of communal farms and giant state-owned agricultural enterprises.

Partly as an act of charity, the first Bush administration came to the rescue, sending emergency shipments of American poultry to help avert famine. As frozen packs of American chicken leg quarters appeared on empty market shelves here, they came to be known as "Bush's legs."

That humanitarian gesture quickly grew into a mammoth business. American agribusiness sold Russia $11 million worth of chicken in 1992. Last year, that figure approached $700 million.

Bush's legs may have fed hungry Russians, but Russian officials say the imports also slowed the recovery of Russia's domestic poultry industry.

When Russia imposed the import quotas, the price of leg quarters in Russian supermarkets went up almost 50 percent.

While the higher prices have left consumers grumbling, they have also pumped money into places like Petelinskaya.

A bust of Lenin still scowls from a pedestal in the snowy courtyard of the farm's administration building, about an hour west of Moscow. But the inspiration for the former state-owned enterprise is another visionary: John Tyson, the founder of the American poultry giant Tyson Foods Inc.

Seven years ago, farm managers decided to implement what they call "the Tyson model." It's the American poultry industry's system of splitting up the incubation, hatching, raising and slaughter of chickens into separate enterprises, each held to rigorous efficiency standards. "This allows us to reduce the costs of production at each stage of the cycle," Sedikh said.

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