Culture Wars

This month the world has watched as Olympic skaters have spun and jumped, skiers have swooshed downhill and Russia has delivered undrinkable water and unusable, unsanitary toilets to visitors in Sochi.

The global village also saw Russians unable to deliver a fifth Olympic ring during opening ceremonies and got an introduction into international trade wars, courtesy of the Russians refusing Chobani yogurt to U.S. athletes. The Russians cited health and safety concerns in declining entry certificates for the yogurt.

The whole spectacle is the best thing that could have happened for lobbying and merchandising efforts by Chobani and other U.S. dairy product exporters. U.S. dairy products have been banned in Russia for three years. Not because any yogurt or fluid milk or cheese was found to be tainted or unsafe, but because the Russian government changed documentation requirements in such a convoluted way that the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it couldn’t comply.

The September 2010 Russian import ban said dairy products had to be on a preapproved list based on production facilities, inspections and more. It’s a tactic often used by the Russian government, as poultry exporters can testify from painful experience. Poultry inspection requirements have changed often and suddenly over the years.

Russia has long flaunted its practice of using trade rules and phytosanitary concerns to thinly disguise protectionism and to display political displeasure. Last fall, Russian officials banned dairy imports from Lithuania because that small country was getting too cozy with the European Union.

In 2009, when Russia was the top global market for U.S. poultry, a U.S. poultry industry official told me that trading with the Russians was like being in “purgatory.”

“We can’t ignore it, because about one-fourth of all U.S. poultry exports end up in Russia,” James Sumner, president of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Export Council, said at the time. “Even after a product is sold and shipped, you don’t know if it will be accepted. A shipment could be rejected or plant delisted. Sometimes Russian Customs will clear something, and sometimes they reject the paperwork. You never know.”

To add some predictability to the situation, a number of nations pushed Russia to join the World Trade Organization. They reasoned that all the perks of belonging would be paired with Russia’s need to abide by WTO rules.

And, in fact, in order to join, Russia agreed to drop the very dairy certificate requirement mentioned in this month’s Chobani entry denial. Despite two years of what the USDA calls extensive talks, Russia Customs officials haven’t signed off on a new certificate system.

After seeing the yellow-brown water provided to international guests, can anyone still believe the dairy dispute is really about Russian concerns of health and safety?

Stephanie Nall is editor of Cool Cargoes. Contact her at stephnalljoc@gmail.com.

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