Russian ractopamine ban on U.S. beef possibly political

Dec 14, 2012

After years of effort to establish permanent normal trade relations with Russia, the U.S. may see all its efforts—in the form of its exported beef and pork—dumped back into its lap.

Saturday, Dec. 8, marked the beginning of a Russian trade requirement on U.S. beef and pork imports. The requirement demands all beef and pork from the U.S. be tested and certified free of residue from the feed additive ractopamine. The move could effectively halt all beef and pork imports to the country. Despite the Russian focus on ractopamine, U.S. officials see the move as political retaliation.

Early in December, Russian trade officials announced the U.S. had until Friday, Dec. 7 to certify U.S. beef and pork destined for Russia was tested and proven free of ractopamine. The feed additive is fed to beef cattle, pigs and turkeys in the weeks prior to slaughter to encourage additional lean meat production.

U.S. inability to meet the rather sudden documentation demands meant the brief grace period did little good.

“The back and forth we’ve had with Russia on ractopamine has gone on for some time,” said Joe Schuele, communications director of the U.S. Meat Export Federation (US- MEF). “They’ve now reiterated they would impose the documentation requirement.”

Ractopamine has become a controversial sticking point in global meat trade. Russia, as well as China, the European Union and the UK, have bans of varying sorts on the product on health and/or sanitary concerns. This is in spite of the fact international health groups have identified the product as safe and the Codex Alimentarius has set acceptable levels of the drug.

Russia’s stated concerns over the drug seem to be on human and animal health concerns, with the latter being apparently based on improper usage.

Gennady Onishchenko, chief public health official and head of Russia’s plant and animal health regulator, Rospotrebnadzor, recently outlined some of his concerns over ractopamine to a Russian publication.

“For instance, the use of ractopamine involves the decrease of body weight, the impairment of the reproductive function and more frequent instances of mastitis in milking cattle, which dramatically worsens milk quality and safety.”

Ractopamine’s whole purpose is to increase the production of lean meat in feeder animals soon destined to be slaughtered. It is expressly not for use in breeding animals or dairy cattle and such use, as well as use by animals other than beef cattle, pigs and turkeys, is not allowed in the U.S.

Like health officials in the many other countries which ban ractopamine, Onishchenko additionally impugned the safety of the product for human health, despite international acceptance and standards.

This move has the potential to threaten hundreds of millions of dollars of meat trade with the large country. According to US- MEF records, from January to October of this year, 73,625 metric tons of beef and beef variety meats, valued at $283.7 million, and 86,566 metric tons of pork and pork variety meats, valued at $247.6 million, left the U.S. bound for Russia. Both figures are up considerably from the same time last year—up 15 percent for volume and 28 percent in value for beef and 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively, for pork. For that period, Russia represented 8 percent by volume and 6 percent by value of U.S. beef exports, and 5 percent of both volume and value for pork exports.

Many U.S. and Canadian agricultural officials asked Russia to delay implementation of the ban before it occurred, and now, since then, are asking for a stay. Shipments of U.S. beef and pork valued at roughly $20 million already in transit before the ban was announced risk being seized and destroyed in Russian ports, or simply refused entry, if it is tested and found to contain ractopamine residue. Canada, which also uses ractopamine in its beef and pork, also has something to be worried about with this move.

“We have asked Russia for a delay in the implementation of this decision to allow for a thorough and science-based discussion between Canadian and Russian officials,” said Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

Russia’s refusal to accept meat found with traces of ractopamine is nothing new. A year ago, Russia’s phytosanitary surveillance group announced a zerotolerance policy for ractopamine residues in imported meats. Brazil banned the use of the product in its beef and pork industries because it hadn’t established a testing and certification process and feared losing Russia’s business. This came a few months after 20 Brazilian pork plants were barred from shipping to Russia back in August. A U.S. pork producer was barred as recently as September from exporting to Russia over ractopamine concerns.

What is new is that the massive country is now a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as of August of this year and the U.S. Senate just voted on a bill to permit normal trade relations with Russia, which President Obama signed. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the passage of the normalized trade agreement, “a victory for all who are interested in free trade and unfettered trade.”

Part of the welcomed trade legislation, however, includes a stipulation which bans several Russian officials and citizens considered by the U.S. to be guilty of human rights abuses from entering the U.S. This portion of the legislation—casually called the Magnitsky Act—has caused significant indignation in Russian officials who call it an inappropriate attempt to interfere with Russian internal affairs.

There is significant speculation—and from more than just U.S. sources— that Russia’s recent reemphasis on the ractopamine ban and requirement of testing and certification is a retaliatory move on Russia’s part against the Magnitsky Act. Russian officials, of course, deny the demand for certification U.S. meat is free of ractopamine residue is politically motivated.

Regardless the motivation behind the sudden resurgence in Russia’s apparent concerns over ractopamine residues, the fact Russia is now a WTO member after 19 years of waiting makes its banning of a Codex-recognized safe product questionable on global trade levels.

Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk expressed concern and disappointment in an official statement following Russia’s announcement.

“The United States is very concerned that Russia has taken these actions, which appear to be inconsistent with its obligations as a member of the WTO. The United States calls on Russia to suspend these new measures and restore market access for U.S. beef and pork products.

“The United States sought, and Russia committed as part of its WTO accession package, to ensure that it adhered rigorously to WTO requirements and that it would use international standards unless it had a risk assessment to justify use of a more stringent standard.”

The pair effectively called out Russian officials to prove their commitment to the requirements of WTO membership.

USDA spokesman Matt Herrick echoed the politically polite challenge in his own statement.

“We will continue to reach out to Russia to resolve our differences, as well as to encourage Russia to implement the (U.N.) Codex Alimentarius Commission’s standards for imported meat products to help provide greater certainty, in keeping with their obligation as a World Trade Organization member. This is an important opportunity for Russia to demonstrate that it takes these commitments seriously.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor