WASHINGTON – Russia, the biggest foreign buyer of American chicken, abruptly halted poultry imports Thursday, catching U.S. officials by surprise.
"All of this was done without any prior notice or consultation," Agriculture Department spokesman Ed Loyd said.
Russia's Agriculture Ministry said it canceled all import licenses for poultry because of violations of import regulations. But Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev said the problem was temporary and new licenses would be issued within two weeks.
"This is a technical issue, and I hope everything will be done quickly, within 10 or 14 days," Gordeyev was quoted as saying by Interfax News Agency. "We have not stopped issuing licenses, we are simply replacing old documents with new ones."
Russian poultry farmers have been demanding import restrictions and held a demonstration last week in Moscow. Earlier this month, Gordeyev announced a 30 percent cut in imports to help farmers cope with consumer worries about bird flu.
Russia accounts for about 30 percent of U.S. poultry sold abroad. Leg quarters — the drumstick, thigh and part of the back — made up most of the 1.7 billion pounds Russia purchased from the U.S. last year.
The U.S. industry is worth about $29 billion annually and sells about 14 percent of its products to foreign countries.
Loyd said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman are urging their Russian counterparts to lift the ban. Officials are working with exporters who have poultry shipments en route or in Russian ports, Loyd said.
National Chicken Council spokesman Richard Lobb said the industry is trying to learn more about the ban.
"Exactly how that works, what the practical impact on immediate trade will be, we're still trying to find out," Lobb said. "We certainly want it resolved as soon as possible."
The ban could push U.S. sales down by 5 percent, according to analysis by J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. That's on top of a 12 percent sales drop in recent months from the impact of bird flu on overseas consumption, analysts said.
Russia banned U.S. poultry imports for a month in 2002.