Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's tough warning to U.S. poultry producers has cast a shadow over future imports of a product that has a special place in the history of post-Soviet Russia -U.S. chicken legs.
Imports of U.S. poultry to Russia began in the early 1990s, under a trade agreement signed by the Soviet Union's last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and then-U.S. President George Bush Sr.
The first shipments of chicken legs arrived as a bitter economic crisis gripped the country, emptying the shelves of Soviet supermarkets and forcing the government to introduce elements of food rationing. The specter of famine combined with political instability ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Used to ill-nourished and generally unappetizing domestic poultry, Russians had never before seen such huge chicken drumsticks, and were quick to dub the new product "Bush legs." Baked, braised or boiled, "Bush legs" have since become part of the everyday diet in poorer households.
"In the long-gone Soviet poverty, I remember my mom bringing home those pink, pan-ready chicken legs. To her great surprise, it turned out that they had no feathers. For me, those legs were ambassadors from a place where people did not have to eat blue-colored and badly plucked chickens... Bush legs are a pleasant memory of my childhood, my mom was glad every time she managed to buy them," a Russian blogger, choco_house, wrote on Livejournal.
Chicken legs still remain a popular and cheap food in Russia. A Russian joke says: "Bush family members come and go, but the legs are forever."
As of 2009, Russia accounted for some 22% of all poultry exports from the United States, the world's largest poultry producer and exporter. Almost four-fifths of all imported poultry on the Russian market came from the United States.
U.S. poultry shipments peaked in 2001, topping 1 billion metric tons, and began to decline as the Russian government began cutting import quotas. The figure stood at 800 million metric tons in 2008 and dropped to 750 million metric tons last year. The quota was further reduced to 600 million metric tons this year and was to reach 409 million metric tons in 2012.
However, as soon as the great commodity deficit of the 1990s was over, Russian public began speculating over the possible dangers of the product, citing excessive levels of hormones, antibiotics, chlorine and other chemicals.
In 1997, the European Union banned U.S. poultry treated with chlorides, and the issue is now being looked at by the World Trade Organization. Five years later, Russia imposed a ban on U.S. poultry imports over salmonella concerns. The ban, however, was lifted a month later.
In 2008, a total of 58 metric tons of U.S.-produced chicken legs were destroyed after tests showed they contained huge amounts of arsenic. Later that year, Russia banned poultry imports from 19 U.S. producers, citing their failure to meet sanitary standards.
This year Russia introduced a law strictly limiting the amount of chlorine that can be used in the processing of poultry, effectively banning all imports from the United States.
The move has already had an impact on the Russian poultry market, causing wholesale prices for U.S.-made chicken legs to grow on average by 20%, from 57 rubles ($1.90) per kg in late December 2008, to 65-75 rubles ($2.20-2.50) per kg as of January 12, RBC Daily said. According to USAPEEC, average wholesale price for chicken legs in the U.S. stood at $0.74 per kg in late December.
MOSCOW, January 15 (RIA Novosti)
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