By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – Maryland poultry producers stand to lose about $15 million in trade annually if U.S. officials cannot convince Russia to reverse a March 1 ban on U.S. poultry imports.
A Maryland Department of Agriculture official said exports account for about $67 million of the state’s annual $460 million in broiler sales each year. The $15 million in chicken that goes to Russia may be a small percentage of overall exports, but its loss would have a “substantial impact,” said the spokesman, Don Vandrey.
“This would be painful for the industry,” Vandrey said.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative were scheduled to travel to Russia this weekend in an attempt to get the ban reversed, according to industry officials.
Russian embassy officials were not available for comment Friday, but a statement on the embassy’s web site by Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said the ban was imposed due to sanitary concerns.
But a group of senators protesting the ban said it was imposed after the USDA provided “quick” answers to 14 production-related questions posed by the Russian government.
Maryland Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes joined other senators in a letter to U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow this week, saying “the Russian-imposed embargo will cause extreme hardships for U.S. producers and will have a severe impact on states and communities throughout our country.”
“This embargo has no veterinary basis and it clearly violates the 1996 US- Russian bilateral veterinary agreement,” the letter said.
Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick labeled the ban “unjustified” in a statement this week and said, “U.S. poultry and poultry product exports meet the highest safety standards in the world.”
Published reports have linked the ban to President Bush’s recent decision to impose a tariff of up to 30 percent on steel imports from countries including Russia. But Yakovenko said there was no connection “between the strictly protectionist measures” of the steel tariff and Russia’s ban on U.S. poultry imports “stemming from the problem of compliance with sanitary standards and the protection of the people’s health.”
Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said Russia wants to sever poultry trade with the United States to protect its own producers, who are unable to meet the demands of their market. Lobb said Russian farmers produced only 565,000 metric tons of poultry to add to the more than 1 million metric tons of U.S. imports.
“They feel like they’re getting swamped,” Lobb said. But he cited Russian media reports that American chicken is a godsend and the staff of life in the country.
Lobb said 8 percent of U.S. poultry production ends up in Russia, and an embargo would mean the loss of $630 million in exports. In 2001, the United States shipped more than 1 million metric tons of poultry to Russia, its largest export market.
“This is a very important trade for us,” Lobb said. “It’s also important to Maryland consumers.”
The Russian market is important for the export of dark meat, which American consumers generally shun in favor white meat, he said.
Vandrey said if Russian imports were cut off, cheap chicken would flood the domestic market, which is bad news for poultry producers.
“It goes beyond poultry farmers,” he said. “It goes down to industries that support poultry farmers. It’ll eventually affect the whole economy.”
Maryland is the eighth-largest poultry farming state in the nation, producing about 283 million chickens a year, according to the National Chicken Council, an industry trade association.