By Oleg Kirsanov

BridgeNews.

MOSCOW (B)--Russia is expected to increase imports of U.S. meat in the long run as an increasing number of Russian processors are starting to look for opportunities in the United States, U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) Director for Europe, Russia and the Middle East Richard Ali told BridgeNews in an interview.

He said Russia's decision March 26 to impose a temporary ban on all European animal products would unlikely to result in an immediate surge of U.S. meat exports to Russia.

Russia is heavily dependent on meat imports, bringing in 1.5 million to 2.0 million tonnes annually and the bulk of the supplies have been made from Europe until March 26, when Russia imposed the ban due to outbreaks of the foot-and-mouth disease in Europe.

"The Russian veterinarian authorities are taking action which they see fit to prevent the spread of the disease. These are purely veterinarian issues and we have no comment to make," Ali said.

Ali said the ban was imposed for 21 days and Russia could allow imports after the period. Meanwhile, due to difficulty in forecasting further developments, Russian importers have assumed a wait-and-see attitude, expecting further development.

"The overwhelming majority of Russian importers have been very quiet since the ban was announced. We do not see any increase of U.S. meat exports to Russia because of the ban," Ali said.

Although the ban is imposed for 21 days, it does not mean it would be lifted after the period. Chief veterinarian Mikhail Kravchuk told BridgeNews last week that the ban might be as long as six months to one year.

However, the EU is expected to make significant efforts in making Russia resume the imports because Russia is the largest market for EU livestock products, estimated to account for about 45% of the exports. The EU has already requested Russia to review the ban, saying it was "disproportional."

Ali said that Russian meat processors, who predominantly rely on meat imports, have already shown an increased interest in U.S. products. The interest is caused by concerns over the ability of European authorities to efficiently tackle animal diseases and swiftly resume exports to Russia.

"Russia is interested in consistent meat imports and I believe there will be an increase of U.S. meat exports to Russia in the long run," Ali said.

Ali declined to provide any projections of the U.S. exports to Russia, saying it would be "premature" at the moment.

He said Russia was expected to continue importing mainly pork and beef parts for further processing, such as pork trimmings and picnic and beef liver and hearts.

According to USMEF, U.S. exported 11,167 tonnes of pork last year, almost all of which was shipped in the second half of the year, after the E.U. halted providing pork export subsidies.

In 1998, the U.S. exported about 30,000 tonnes of pork under commercial deals. In 1999, merely 1,000 tonnes was purchased by Russians, but the U.S. donated 50,000 tonnes to Russian in food aid, allowing later also to redirect a low-cost loan given for beef purchases for pork.

Ali also said the U.S beef exports to Russia in 2000 amounted to 37,209 tonnes. This figure includes exports officially bound for Baltic states, because almost everything is delivered then to Russia.

Russia's ban on European meat initially prohibited also the transit of imports of animal origin from third countries via European ports. This temporary ban disrupted U.S. container meat exports to Russia, which accounts for about 10 to 15% of the estimated 60,000-80,000 tonnes monthly U.S. meat exports to Russia, because they were made via European ports.

Russia's veterinarians very soon issued a clarification, permitting the transit. However, the clumsy phrasing of the document raised concerns among importers whether the transit would be feasible.

Ali confirmed that the transit via Russian ports was being carried out normally and U.S. exporters had resumed such exports to Russia after a short pause.

"As far as I know, everything has been settled down by the clarification and we are very happy about it," Ali said.

Director of the Moscow office of U.S.A. Poultry and Egg Export Council Albert Davleyev confirmed to BridgeNews the container shipments had normalized. He said Russian veterinarians were accepting U.S. meat shipments if there was a document from a veterinarian in European ports that the container remained sealed and did not leave the customs area during the transit.

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