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14th Aug 2020

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No end in sight to Russia pork ban

  • A butcher in Moscow in November 2013, just before Russia banned pork imports from the EU. (Photo: michael davis-burchat)

With Russian leader Vladimir Putin securing six more years in office on 18 March, there appears to be no end in sight to the EU sanctions and Russia counter-sanctions that are costing the European pork industry €1.4 billion a year.

Russia's war in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine has become central to the pork dispute in more ways than one. Russia first banned EU pork imports in 2014, shortly before it invaded Ukraine, on the grounds they posed a risk of bringing in African Swine Fever (ASF).

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  • During the first half of last year, EU farmers sent 2.7 million fewer pigs to the abbatoir than in the same period in 2016. (Photo: The Humane League)

That followed a few outbreaks of the disease in Lithuania and Poland, even though there had already been about one million ASF-related pig deaths in Russia at the time.

When the World Trade Organisation (WTO) nixed Russia's veterinary ban in January last year, Russia turned to the events surrounding Donbass. It reimposed the pork ban on national security grounds as a reaction to EU sanctions on its energy firms, arms exporters, and banks.

Its real motive was more likely an economic one. Up to half of Russian pig farms are expected to make a loss this year due to high feed costs, overcapacity, low domestic prices, and poor export opportunities. Another 500,000 tonnes of pork a year in extra capacity is scheduled to come online by 2020.

Russian pork

China has shown little interest in Russian pork due to the ASF risk, and so Russia has turned to Donbass once again - this time as an export destination.

The Russia-occupied Ukrainian region, which is home to six million people, has become the principal foreign destination for Russian pork, consuming a significant majority of the 21,000 tonnes of pig meat and 50,000 tonnes of pig offal and by-products that Russia exported last year.

Russia used to import almost 500,000 tonnes of pork and other by-products from the EU, accounting for 18 percent of all European exports, before its bans kicked in.

There is no sign Putin plans to end his aggression in Donbass in his new term, or that the EU aims to end its economic sanctions when they come up for renewal in July. But if Russia were ever to lift its 'political ban' on EU pork, "there will be a threat to Russian pig production," Yulia Melano, the spokeswoman for Russian veterinary body, Rosselkhoznadzor, said in December.

The net cost of Putin's foreign and agricultural policy for EU pork producers amounts to €1.39 billion a year in lost sales, rising by 15 percent a year.

That is the sum the European Commission asked the WTO in January for permission to levy as compensation via new tariffs on other Russian imports, such as oil and gas.

Russian president Vladimir Putin visiting farmers in the Tver region. (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Russia rejected it, setting the scene for a WTO arbitration panel in Geneva, but even if the EU wins that, there is no guarantee Russia would take the ruling lying down. When Russia lost an arbitration against Ukraine on natural gas in Stockholm in February, it not only refused to pay the €2 billion award, it also stopped gas supplies to its neighbour.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said in 2015 that processed meat, including many pork products, such as bacon, which is typically treated with chemicals to make it look pink, helped cause bowel cancer.

That did little harm to EU pig breeders, mostly in Germany, Spain, France, Poland, and Denmark, who still slaughtered 257 million pigs in 2016, two million more than before the WHO report. But during the first half of last year, EU farmers sent 2.7 million fewer pigs to the abbatoir than in the same period in 2016 - a warning sign for the sector.

Some EU states are banking on an end to Russia sanctions, with Ireland, for one, sending its trade minister and 17 businessmen to a trade exhibition, called Agrofarm, in Moscow in February. "Sanctions are not there forever" and there are "huge opportunities here [in Russia] for Irish companies", Irish trade minister Pat Breen said at the time.

But Ireland, as well as other EU states, such as Finland, are also looking to reorient lost pork and other food sales from Russia to further afield in the long term.

Breen called the opening up of the Iranian market after decades of sanctions another "huge" opportunity. Finnish pork seller Atria launched its products in Chinese shops last summer and aims to sell 5,000 tonnes in its first year of trading with the world's biggest pork import market, worth 1.2 million tonnes a year overall.

The firm's CEO, Juha Grohn, said competition was "enormous", but told Chinese news agency Xinhua last month that EU firms can offer the increasingly picky Chinese consumers something that many Russian ones cannot - guaranteed quality. "What we can offer is transparency and traceability. We can follow production from farm to the last step of delivery to China," he said.

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China bans German pork, egg imports over dioxin scare

China on Wednesday suspended all pork and egg imports from Germany, after German authorities found that dioxin-contaminated animal food had been used in pig and poultry farms. The responsible firm has meanwhile gone bust and is under investigation for criminal activities.

Irish pork pulled from EU shelves

Just in time for Christmas, the European Union has recommended all Irish pork products be pulled from shelves after Irish authorities found dioxins in pork meat about 100 times the EU maximum level over the weekend.

Rules on British pork exports relaxed

On Wednesday, the EU's Standing Veterinary Committee decided that some British pork meat can be exported for the first time since the foot-and-mouth outbreak began, writes BBC News. Margaret Beckett, secretary of state, welcomed the decision but warned that Britain should not let its guard down against the disease.

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