Russia bans U.S. meat over ractopamine

Feb 15, 2013

Another potential battle is brewing in the world of international meat trade. Yet another country has drawn a line in the sand over U.S. use of ractopamine.

Monday, Feb. 11, Russia announced it had adopted a “zero-tolerance” position regarding ractopamine residues in meat. This move has effectively suspended all Russian imports of U.S. beef, pork and turkey as there is no unified tracking protocol in place for the feed additive in the U.S.

The Russian ban on U.S. meat has been a possibility tossed around for a few weeks now, but the move was made official when Russia’s Veterinary and Phyto-Sanitary Surveillance Service announced it would not accept meat from countries which could not prove the product was free of ractopamine.

“Apparently the ban on practically all U.S. meat and meat products will be long term,” said Gennady Onishchenko, chief sanitary inspector of Russia.

Dankvert Sergey Alexeevich, head of Russia’s consumer safety watchdog group, Rosselkhoznadzor, added that the move was spurred by continued U.S. “violations” of Russia’s earlier insistence on no ractopamine residues in imported meat.

Others, however, are calling the ban temporary.

Philip Seng, CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), told Bloomberg he didn’t think the Russian market would be closed for long. USMEF representatives will be in Russia this week in an attempt to reach a compromise on the issue. Another element which might make the ban—which centers around ractopamine officially—temporary is its potential to violate Russia’s international trade responsibilities.

Ractopamine is a betaagonist-based feed additive which improves feed conversion and lean muscle gain when fed in the last few weeks prior to slaughter. Much of the recent impressive increases in carcass weights in the past year have been attributed to its adoption in feedlots.

There are commercial varieties cleared by FDA for use in cattle, swine and turkeys intended for consumption. It is not cleared for use in non-feeder animals nor in other species than those mentioned. Additionally, it has a limited period of usefulness and the effects drop off rapidly after feeding of the additive is halted. For this reason, there is no withdrawal period. There are, however, international and FDA-set maximum residue levels (MRLs) for ractopamine.

In the summer of last year, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex)— an international safety standards group established by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization—agreed to the safety of the product and set MRLs for it in beef and pork tissues. Despite this, ractopamine is banned in 160 countries. Only a couple dozen countries, including the U.S. and Canada, allow and use the additive.

Many of the countries which ban or are otherwise critical of ractopamine— which include China, Taiwan, and the European Union in addition to Russia—claim the product poses a health risk to humans who consume meat from animals fed the additive. This, however, is not supported by the extensive research conducted on the safety of ractopamine.

Among the many studies conducted was a small human trial where subjects were directly fed quantities of ractopamine. Though there have been many complaints made against the human study, particularly for its small size and the unrepresentative nature of the subjects (all adult males with no heart conditions), someone would have to consume many hundreds of pounds of meat from animals fed ractopamine in a day to reach even the lowest dosage administered in the study. It was only at the highest dosage in the study that adverse effects were noted, and this only in a single subject.

In their official response to the move, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk expressed disappointment in Russia’s move.

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

“Russia’s failure to adopt the Codex standard raises questions about its commitment to the global trading system. 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 United States calls on Russia to restore market access for U.S. meat and meat products immediately and to abide by its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).”

Russia—as the Russian Federation—joined WTO in the summer of 2012 as WTO’s 156th member nation. This came after nearly two decades of petitioning to join. With membership comes the expectation that member nations abide by the rules and agreements set by a consensus of the other member nations on any given topic.

Though the ban has been made on health and sanitary concerns, according to Russian officials, some feel the move is protectionist on Russia’s part. As a recently inducted member of WTO, the potential for inexpensive meat imports flooding into Russia could pose an economic threat to domestic meat producers there.

While it is possible this dispute will need to be taken to WTO for resolution, past issues of a similar nature with other countries suggest trying to sort it out with Russia directly is a far preferable option. WTO involvement can be long and time consuming, during which time U.S. meats are losing market share and income from the stalled trade.

Joe Schuele, communications director for USMEF, said that the WTO option exists, but that no one is really contemplating it as of yet.

“That’s not a remedy anyone wants to give a lot of thought to,” he explained, saying that trying to work directly with Russia is a more expedient and beneficial course of action. He also said the motivation to work with Russia on their concerns is strong.

“We have a lot of good customers in Russia and we don’t want them to have to look elsewhere.”

The Russian ban on U.S. meat has the potential to impact over half a billion dollars’ worth of meat trade to Russia. The total trade in beef and pork (including variety meats of both) was 179,238 metric tons, valued at $588.8 million for 2012. For both beef and pork, and for both volume and value, meat trade to Russia was up in 2012 versus 2011. Beef trade was up 10 percent by volume and 20 percent by value, while pork was up 33 and 22 percent, respectively. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor