- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

Chickens and turkeys are at the center of a highly charged trade dispute involving the United States, Russia and the poultry farms of Maryland and Virginia.
Russia is threatening to ban American chicken imports on Sunday, citing concern about the poultry's safety and labeling.
American shipments totaled $700 million last year, making Russia the largest export market for U.S. poultry and a vital part of the world markets upon which area producers depend. The U.S. poultry industry employs workers in 38 states; half of all poultry exports go to Russia.
"It's never good news when your number one customer tries to ban your product," said Tom Sleight, director of marketing at the Virginia Department of Agriculture. "Anything that puts a damper on poultry exports will put a damper on Virginia."
The Russian Ministry of Agriculture announced last week that it had stopped issuing import permits for American poultry and would impose a full ban Sunday.
Russian officials have said that U.S. chickens and turkeys might be contaminated with bacteria and antibiotics, or that shipments are not accompanied by adequate documentation.
U.S. producers have said the Russians' requirements are intolerably vague.
The dispute also has led the poultry industry to yearn for the days when Russia seemed to promise endless demand for what came to be known was "Bush legs" after former President George Bush. Early in the 1990s, U.S. producers discovered that Russians had a taste for the dark meat as Americans were eating more white, breast meat.
By the middle of the decade, Russian producers began establishing their own farms. They also worked hard to persuade Moscow to shield them from foreign competition. In 1996, President Clinton persuaded Russian President Boris Yeltsin to open the doors to American poultry at the behest of Arkansas' Tyson Foods Inc., reportedly as part of a deal to support Mr. Yeltsin's re-election.
This time, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow has made the rounds in Moscow to warn Russia that the ban will hurt Russia's economic standing, not help it. He said Tuesday that the Russian government has declined his request for meetings on the subject before the ban takes effect, saying that the relevant officials are sick.
"A negative signal will be sent to the U.S. Congress … and a very disturbing message to potential American investors," he said.
The fight, as in the past, has drawn the attention of Maryland and Virginia poultry processors and state departments of agriculture, who fear the closure of a major export market. Virginia alone has 1,300 poultry farmers who are recovering from a string of bad years.
Maryland is home to some of the nation's giants, including a Tyson plant in Berlin, near Ocean City. Perdue Farms, a $2.7 billion privately held company in Salisbury, also ships poultry around the world.
"Exports of dark meat are a major part of our economy," said Don Vandry, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Virginia's farms, the largest of which are in the hands of major national producers such as Pilgrim's Pride of Texas and Cargill, exported $10 million in poultry last year, Mr. Sleight said.
"We're not a tobacco and peanuts state like most people think," he said. "It's chicken."
Many observers have speculated that poultry has become caught up in a tit-for-tat over steel imports.
On Tuesday, President Bush announced that the United States would slap tariffs of up to 30 percent on steel imports, many of which come from Russia. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov sought to downplay the interpretation without exactly denying it.
"There is no direct link to Russia's intention to ban U.S. poultry meat imports," he said Wednesday.

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