Russia threatens import ban on U.S. cattle over shipping concerns

Sep 28, 2012


The apparently very poor condition of a shipment of U.S. cattle bound for Russian dairy farms has officials in that country considering a ban on the importation of U.S. cattle that arrive via oceangoing vessels. In a statement issued Sept. 5, the Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, Rosselkhoznador, expressed concern over what it termed “extremely grave deficiencies in ensuring animal safety” regarding a group of roughly 3,300 U.S. cattle shipped to Russia on the Italian ship Pearl of Para.

According to Rosselkhoznador, of the 3,300 cattle shipped, 178 died in transit between the U.S. and Russia, 59 died traveling from the port city of Novorossiysk to their destination farms, and more than 900 either died upon reaching those farms, or were put down by veterinary personnel on site. In all, says the Russian report, well over 1,000 head of the original 3,300-cow shipment failed to reach their destinations in useable condition.

Russian officials cite exhaustion and malnutrition as the primary cause of the death loss, and attribute the problem to the use of unsuitable containers, as well as inadequate manure removal and ventilation aboard the ship. Furthermore, they claim, similar complaints have previously been voiced by Russian farmers receiving shipments of U.S. cattle in recent years. “It should be noted that Rosselkhoznador has been repeatedly requested by Russian consignees to investigate other violations detected during the supply of breeding cattle from the U.S.,” reported Rosselkhoznador press secretary Alexai Alekssenko. “These violations include supply of animals in ships and containers unsuitable for this purpose, resulting in deaths, injuries, and loss of productivity from imported livestock. As a result, the Russian consignees have suffered significant financial losses.”

In the Sept. 5 statement, Rosselkhoznador called on USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to consult with Russian officials and reach an agreement on a list of measures to strengthen controls over the shipment of animals between the two nations. If an agreement is not reached, they warn, punitive action may result. “If the U.S. authorities take a non-constructive position,” said the statement, “Rosselkhoznador will be forced to introduce temporary restrictions on imports of U.S. breeding cattle by sea.”

Such restrictions would come as a blow to U.S. ranchers, who have seen dramatic increases in the number of breeding cattle exported to Russia in recent years. USDA records show that 37,000 head of cattle left the U.S. bound for Russia during 2011, and an additional 60,000 have been shipped so far this year. According to APHIS spokeswoman Lyndsay Cole, the Russian request is being taken seriously. “US- DA routinely works with our foreign trade partners on the logistics of animal trade.” says Cole. “We are continuing our investigation and are working directly with Russia. Live cattle exports to Russia have increased dramatically over the past two years, and USDA recognizes the importance of its role in helping our producers service this growing market.”

According to Cole, however, while APHIS does conduct inspections of ships hauling livestock before departure, they have little control over what happens once a vessel is underway. “Our authority ends the moment the ship departs,” she says. “The livestock owner or exporter, and the master of the vessel are responsible for animals on board without regard if the ship is foreign or domestic.”

As with in-country transport, utilizing a reputable shipping company is the key to ensuring that disasters of this type do not occur, says Montana rancher Darrell Stevenson. In addition to a family Angus operation, Stevenson is also part owner of the Stevenson-Sputnik ranch, a joint venture between Stevenson and Russian investors, located near Voronezh, in southern Russia. While not involved in the contested shipment, Stevenson has shipped multiple loads of cattle by sea, and is familiar with the associated challenges. When managed correctly, he says, cattle not only survive the trip, they often gain weight during the 16- to 18-day journey. The challenge, he says, is to locate a reputable ship experienced in hauling livestock. While there are ships designed expressly for livestock transport, others rely on specialized containers and intensive management systems to care for cattle during the voyage.

“The concerning part about the live export business in this country is that, prior to just a few years ago, we weren’t viewed as a live cattle export nation,” points out Stevenson. “That being the case, there literally is not an American-owned livestock vessel. There is the ability to use containers that are American owned and managed, but there are worldwide limitations as to what is available. As in any cutthroat business, people will scramble to do what they think it takes.” In order to tap into the emerging market, says Stevenson, some companies have attempted to retrofit or modify existing ships to house livestock, resulting in vessels that attempt the journey without the facilities or manpower necessary to adequately care for stock during the voyage, or to provide the daily cleaning and maintenance of ventilation required to maintain animal health.

“The good vessels are more than adequate,” says Stevenson. He describes one such ship, scheduled to leave the U.S. with a load of cattle this October. “It’s all automated, there’s checks and double checks on ventilation, feeding and watering systems. It’s overstaffed in terms of veterinary oversight. In my opinion, they are being treated better on this particular vessel than they would be standing out here in the middle of this drought.”

Not all exporters, however, utilize ships that are so well equipped, and Stevenson indicates that the concerns expressed by the Russian government are not without merit. “I think there was just cause for investigating this; those of us in this business are working in the best interests of animal welfare,” he says. “There does have to be some respect for guidelines that are in place.”

Ultimately, says Stevenson, the key to shipping healthy stock overseas, as with most facets of the industry, lies in dealing with the right people. “What it comes down to is reputation in the export process,” he says. “It’s dealing with experts to ensure long term success. You have to deal with exporters that have some integrity and proven performance.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent