As the world turns away from European beef, Russians have been diving into their plates of meat as heartily as ever before. But should they?
Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in European livestock are wreaking havoc on EU rural economies already shaken by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad-cow disease. But as Western European farmers slaughter their cattle, consumers panic and the world bans meat and grain imports from some or all European Union nations, many people in Russia have been keeping their cool. Some experts say Russia is better able to handle possible contagion, and some officials even see potential profits where their foreign counterparts see economic catastrophe.
But perhaps Russia is suffering from a false sense of security: German lawmaker Helmut Lamp has been quoted in the media as suggesting that unwanted EU beef be sent as "food aid" to Russia, North Korea and Mongolia; and the Moscow City government is reported to have made a highly controversial deal in February to import beef from Bavaria, despite reports of BSE infection in Germany and a Russian ban on beef imports from three German states in effect since January.
Russia's response to the crisis has been unique. "A Healthy Nation: In Russia There is No Fear of Foot-and-Mouth," declared the daily Izvestia on its March 15 front page. "Don't worry, it's just madness. We are being frightened, but we are not scared," challenged the daily Kommersant's Dengi magazine in February. "Our plain-looking but disease-free cows will save the world from mad cow," trumpeted Moskovsky Komsomolets.
Not that the Russian press is uncritical of the government's response to the epidemics. But a prevalent opinion in agricultural circles is that the country is at low risk of contamination by both BSE and foot-and-mouth due in part to the lack of technological progress and resources in the cash-starved cattle-breeding industry.
"It's not a problem in Russia. And it's poverty that has protected us so far," said Konstantin Mezentsev, vice president of the Farmers' Association, or AKKOR, which represents only private farmers, who work 9 percent of the country's land.
Russian farmers do not use feed containing ground bone of other mammals, which is believed to be linked to BSE, but rather much cheaper animal protein-free feed such as grass, he said. They practically stopped manufacturing animal-derived feed about 10 years ago and even then they produced it in very small quantities, he said.
As for imported bone meal, it is beyond their pockets. Last year a kilogram of imported German animal feed cost $17, while Russian-made animal feed costs $5 to $6, which is still a high price for local farmers, he said.
"Protein-free feed is much cheaper and there are no risks of being infected. So our cows are poorer but they are healthier," he said.
His prediction: "I don't expect it [BSE] will spread to Russia. We are too poor to use this feed - we will never use it."
Vasily Ganzenko, deputy general director of AKKOR-Agro, a branch of the association that specializes in farming equipment, confirmed cattle breeders' attitude.
"Russian farmers are not concerned about this problem. They are not affected by it. So far nobody has approached us about it," he said. "Of course it's a very serious problem, especially because it's well-known that Russia imports the cheapest meat. It might be infected, who knows. So far people are not falling ill, so I guess it's OK."
However, there is fierce disagreement among experts as to what type of feed Russia has been using. Late last year, the daily Vedomosti quoted Viktor Yatskin, head of the trade and information committee of the Russian Meat Union, saying: "In Russia, bone powder has traditionally been used to feed all animals." Russian Meat Union head Musheg Mamikonyan disputed this, saying that such feed is used for pigs only, while cattle are fed hay or pasture grass.
The State Statistics Committee estimated that in the course of last year Russia imported 117,967 tons of feed containing ground bone.
However, Deputy Agriculture Minister Sergei Dankvert said in an interview in February, "We have been feeding vegetable-derived proteins to our animals for the past 10 years. Most farmers have not used feed from bone meal since the late '80s because they had no money to buy expensive fodder from abroad."
As for the danger posed by foot-and-mouth disease, if it is to spread to Russia, it will more likely come from the east, and Russia has been carrying out inoculations in view of its high exposure to contamination from its eastern borders.
First identified in 1897, the viral infection was almost eradicated in Europe but has persisted throughout Asia. Russia is no novice in dealing with the disease, as outbreaks have been reported in Mongolia last summer and again this year. In mid-March, Russian authorities killed 3,000 antelopes suspected of infection, after they crossed the border from Mongolia, Interfax reported. Russia also successfully repressed an outbreak in its Primorye region last April, Interfax reported.
According to Valery Zakharov, deputy director of the All-Russia Research Institute of Animal Protection based in Vladimir, inoculations in Russia cover 18 percent of cattle and 19.5 percent of sheep and goats. This year, inoculations were administered in Siberia's Buryatia and Chita regions, the North Caucasus, and the Rostov, Volgo grad, Stavropol, Krasnodar, Vla dimir, and Moscow regions, among others.
The Associated Press reported on March 22 that Dutch veterinarians had also begun vaccinating herds of cattle after the government confirmed cases of foot-and-mouth disease in three farms in the eastern Netherlands, however no confirmation of any inoculations had been given by the Dutch Agriculture Ministry. Until now, EU members had avoided vaccination, fearing it would strip them of their disease-free status in world markets. Another reason why vaccination is controversial is that inoculated animals bear the same foot-and-mouth antibodies as infected animals, and it can be difficult to tell them apart.
But what makes Russia so sure it is safe from harm, amid worldwide worry and beef bans? After all, the state of Russia's livestock and meat industry was dire enough that the government imposed an all-out ban on imports of some EU meat products on March 26. The government has said the ban will continue at least until Thursday.
The country's cattle supply, in both state and private farms, is plummeting, from a total of 54.7 million heads in 1992 to 27.9 million heads as of Feb. 1 of this year, according to the State Statistics Committee.
Russia's cows have seen their ranks shrinking, from 20.6 million heads in 1992 to 13 million this year, according to the committee. Pig supply has gone from 35.4 million heads to 16.1 million heads within that period.
As a result, production of processed meat goods, including poultry, is also on a steep decline, from 8.26 million tons in 1992 to 4.313 million tons in 1999, according to the committee. The latter said that these figures apply to the whole year.
According to Yatskin of the Russian Meat Union, imports account for a third of the 6 million or so tons of meat consumed across the country annually. In the event of an all-out ban, the local meat industry would need at least two years of significant investment to compensate for imports from EU countries, he said.
According to an Agriculture Ministry spokesperson, the ministry has officially declared that there are no cases of mad-cow disease in Russia. No cases of infection had been registered, neither in live cattle nor meat produce, she said in mid-March.
These findings come from the ministry's Veterinary Department, on whose shoulders rests the entire responsibility of dealing with the effects of the meat crisis, from research to decision-making.
In a February study entitled "Diagnosis and Monitoring of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in Russia," senior veterinary official Nikolai Yaremenko and other veterinary experts stated: "At present, BSE has not been registered in Russia."
This verdict is based on research conducted by the Veterinary Department, which consisted of tests of 472 samples of brain tissue "of cloven-hoofed animals" across the country.
Another spokesperson for the ministry, Irina Rozanova, said that no cases of foot-and-mouth disease had been registered, although she added that previous outbreaks of the virus occurred in the mid-'90s. "For now the situation in Russia is safe," she said.
Despite these figures, several cases of possible BSE-related infections in cattle as well as humans have been reported in Russia.
In his study, Yaremenko writes that his team has found clinical signs similar to those of BSE in the brain and spinal cord tissue of cattle in the Kaluga region.
According to Moscow's Center of State Sanitary-Epidemiological Inspectorate, last August a 32-year-old man from Murmansk was admitted to Infectious Diseases Hospital No. 1 in Moscow with symptoms of generalized sclerosis. He was later diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). And in December, a 29-year-old sailor died from CJD, Agence France Presse reported in late January. In neither case was it stated whether the patients were suffering from new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the fatal brain disorder believed to be linked to BSE, however Agence France Presse reported that the sailor was Russia's first case of a possibly BSE-related death.
The food crisis has renewed fears of associated criminal trade. On Feb. 27, Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev denounced the possible dumping of unwanted, infected meat from the EU onto the Russian market, The Associated Press reported Interfax as saying, expressing fears among Russian officials that such meat would be exported to Russia instead of being destroyed.
Earlier this year, Russian veterinary authorities seized two tons of what was deemed to be possibly BSE-infected French beef, suspected of having been illegally imported via the United States, Agence France Presse reported.
A spokesperson for the State Customs Committee said that so far the committee had not received any directives to alter its customs policies to curb illegal imports. "There are border control checkpoints, and no changes are planned," she said.
The foot-and-mouth epidemics have also unleashed a banning spree, starting in March with the ban of imports of animal products from China, Vietnam, Taiwan, South and North Korea, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, into the Russian Far East and culminating with the banning of European meat products on March 26.
Rozanova of the Agriculture Ministry said that the Veterinary Department ordered a ban on all meat and live animals from Britain in the wake of the latest outbreak. The ban, in effect since Feb. 21, will be removed once the cattle epidemic is over, she said.