U.S. officials fuming over Russian beef import ban

TAMPA, Fla. — The welcome news in the United States of expanded beef trade with Japan was tempered when Russia announced a ban on meat imports because they may contain ractopamine.

The dispute with Russia is more than a disagreement over whether pork and beef might contain residues of the feed additive, said U.S. officials.

“It is not about ractopamine,” Gary Horlick, trade adviser to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said during the association’s annual meeting held Feb. 5-9 in Tampa.

“It is about the overall state of U.S.-Russia negotiations and legislation that Congress passed last year, and the Russians were looking for something to take back.”

The ban went into effect Feb. 11.

The U.S. has not offered to test meat or make changes, arguing the decision was not based on scientific evidence, said Kent Bacas, the NCBA’s associate director of legislative affairs.

“This is very disappointing, considering Russia failed to base their protocol decisions on sound science such as the recommendations that were established by the international body of sciences, Codex Alimentarius.”

Russia was one of the top five export destinations for U.S. beef until the ban was announced, he said.

Congress had voted to extend trade negotiations in December 2012 but also passed human rights legislation regarding Russia.

In response, the Russian government halted adoption of Russian children by Americans and followed up with the meat ban.

“We are going to continue to try to find ways to resolve this problem and find a way to work with the Russians,” Bacas said.

In a statement issued Feb. 11, U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said the Russian ban was unjustified.

“Russia has disregarded the extensive and expert scientific studies conducted by the international food safety standards body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex), which has repeatedly concluded that animal feed containing the additive ractopamine is completely safe for livestock and for humans that consume their meat,” Vilsack said.

“Despite repeated U.S. requests to discuss the safety of ractopamine, Russia has refused to engage in any constructive dialogue and instead has simply suspended U.S. meat imports.”

The U.S. Meat Export Federation said exports to Russia were at record levels to the end of November. The total value was $305 million for nearly 80,000 tonnes, a large increase over 2011.

As part of the World Trade Organization agreement, Russia agreed to increase the U.S. tariff rate quota to 60,000 tonnes at 15 percent tariff. In 2011, it was a 41,700 tonne quota.

However, shipments have slowed severely since the ban.

The technology that is used to produce more meat is needed to feed a hungry world, even though some trading partners reject them, said Steve Isaf, chair of the meat export federation.

“We need these technologies in this country and in the world,” he said during an exporters committee meeting at the convention.

“The problem is that we also have to meet the demands and interests of our customers worldwide and what their preferences are.”

He suspects many consumers do not know much about these products. The disputes are often between governments.

“If we abandon those technologies entirely, in 10 years, one day we will wake up and wish that we had them because we will need a big input,” he said.

While the disputes with Russia continue, wider access to the Japanese beef market was considered a hard won victory.

Horlick said part of the Japanese decision to extend access for beef from animals younger than 30 months instead of younger than 20 months was connected to its desire to enter the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Japan’s 38.5 percent beef tariff would fall rapidly if it entered that larger agreement.

In addition, the U.S. will push for full World Organization for Animal Health access, which would allow all beef into a country as long as there are certain food safety safeguards to keep BSE out of the product.

This announcement could also open the door to China, said Isaf, who owns an international food trading company with three offices in China. Beef is entering Hong Kong, but China is unrelenting. It has 22 conditions that must be met for beef to enter the mainland.

“I think with this opportunity with Japan coming into 30 months and down offers more cover for us to be able to get into markets like China in a direct way,” Isaf said.

Japan was the second largest export market in 2012, buying more than $1 billion worth of U.S. beef.

Total tonnage for all products was 143,900 tonnes, which included variety meats and whole muscle cuts. It had dropped to zero in 2004 after BSE was discovered in December 2003.

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