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Poultry ban lift sees intense negotiation effort

Sometimes chickens, sometimes feathers

Not that the new market is not helping the U.S. poultry industry, but the amount of poultry exported to Cuba pales in comparison to the amount exported annually to Russia.

About 39% of all chicken exports go to Russia, according to USA Poultry and Egg Export Council director of communications Toby Moore. This, compared to the 500 tons of frozen chickens that left Gulfport for Havana via Crowley Liner Services in December 2001 — one of the first direct food shipments between the U.S. and Cuba in 40 years — and the approximately 11,000 tons shipped to Cuba through the Port of Pascagoula since the ban was lifted seems paltry.

“(Cuba) is a market that is an addition to the traditional markets that the frozen poultry goes to, and we’re looking at it as a growth opportunity,” said Mark McAndrews, director of the Port of Pascagoula.

More than 300,000 tons of poultry is shipped out of the port annually to various places.

Crowley Liner Services handles all types of shipments to Central America and to the Caribbean. The company is currently only handling poultry shipments to Cuba, but is hopeful that the initial shipments of poultry will lead to additional shipments of other types of products.

It may not be seen as the boom, but the poultry exports to Cuba have provided some economic impact on Mississippi, where most of the shipments leave from for Cuba.

“Every time we take a booking and transport the cargo it is creating work opportunities for stevedores,” said Mark Miller, Crowley director of corporate communications. “And there are truckers to bring the cargo in whether by truck or by rail. That could result in additional purchases and business transactions.”

Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission, agreed.

“I think Mississippi is in the strongest position of any state to foster business in Cuba. That’s why we invested our time and resources to make the contacts — because we saw great potential. This is not a short-term but a long-term potential. Most of us believe the door is barely open now and the door will open even wider, offering more business opportunities for businesses in Mississippi and in the region.”

Even so, the exports to Cuba provide nowhere near the economic impact of Russian exporting. Thus, the recent ban on poultry exports to Russia, effective March 10, had everyone scared. The ban was to have been lifted April 10 but was not lifted until April 15. It remains in effect for Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia amid reports there of avian flu.

Rip Walker, sales and marketing representative for American Poultry International (API), said the lift of the ban in the 46 remaining U.S. states, including Mississippi, still does not mean product can be shipped to Russia.

“It’s all semantics,” Walker said. “They’ve revoked all the import permits from the importers.”

As of April 16 API was still not shipping product to Russia.

“I would say that the situation by virtue of them ‘lifting the ban’ is not any better today than it was a week or two weeks ago today,” Walker said. “While the terminology has changed, the effect right now is still the same. My hope is that normal supply and demand will define trade. That’s the way it works best.”

Moore said the Russians began rumbling late last year about concerns they had for U.S. poultry inspection procedures. Under a 1996 agreement, the U.S. and Russia had a salmonella testing procedure in place. Recent salmonella tests conducted by the Russians at random, however, did not use approved procedures, said Moore. Salmonella was found in chicken that had been exported to Russia from 11 U.S. plants.

“Under the U.S. agreement to Russia, all that product was tested for salmonella according to the agreement and shipped to Russia for industrial processing only,” Moore explained. “It was shipped to be put in products that were cooked. In reality if you took this product and did a regular salmonella test you would most likely find safe handling labels on them. Russians took these tests and suddenly it’s all over the news media.”

After discussions between high-ranking U.S. and Russian government officials, a mutual agreement was made to lift the ban on poultry shipments to Russia by April 10, but that date was soon changed to April 15.

Even with the ban lifted though, no one has begun shipping product to Russia.

“People are not going to ship if there’s not a clear understanding of what’s going to happen to their product,” Moore said. “You really have to keep your antennae up so you’ll know beforehand if there are any potential problems before you ship.”

As aggravating as the halt in poultry exports has been over the past month, it is something most producers and exporters are used to, Moore said. He said there are continual problems with shipping to smaller markets, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan.

“You can get angry and start throwing things, but it’s not going to do any good,” Moore said. “Sometimes things don’t work at the speed you want them to work.”

Whether they are accustomed to frequent problems in exporting or not, poultry exporters and producers in the U.S. are dealing with what Moore calls an 800-pound gorilla when it comes to Russia.

Richard Lobb, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, regardless of the negativity surrounding the issue, expects the Russians will live up to their expectations and reopen trade.

“We were pleased to see that the Russians finally came around and agreed to reopen the trade,” Lobb said. “We feel it’s now incumbent upon them to put this into action and get back to business. There are still bumps in the road left but we hope they’re not big ones and that we can get back to business very soon.”

Although Lobb is optimistic about the Russians reopening trade, he is not putting a time limit on when normal trade will resume. “I’ve learned not to put time limits on anything with the Russians,” he said.

Despite the current situation, at least one Mississippi poultry producer is continuing to pack up product for Russia. Dan Risher, human resources director for Choctaw Maid Farms in Carthage, said the company normally exports about four million to five million pounds per week. The company now has chicken in several cold storage warehouses ready to be shipped to Russia.

“We look forward to being able to start shipping out product again,” Risher said.

During the time period the ban has been in effect, chicken leg quarters have already fallen from about 23

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