WASHINGTON — “Sometimes it’s odd when you’re sitting in historic meetings with your Russian counterpart to spend time talking about chicken,” President Obama joked Thursday to a chuckling crowd from the White House and Kremlin press corps.
“But our ability to get resolved a trade dispute around poultry that is a multibillion-dollar export for the United States was, I think, an indication of the seriousness with which President Medvedev and his team take all of these trade and commercial issues,” Obama continued.
As Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stood in the opulent White House East Room, the announcement that Russia was lifting its five-month trade embargo on U.S. poultry was simply an avenue to talk cooperation while focusing on the issue of Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.
In Buffalo, Minn., the news was no joke, because lifting that embargo means serious money.
Millions for Minnesota
Minnesota is the No. 1 state in America for turkey and 10th for chicken eggs. Add in the production of broiler chickens and you get an almost $1 billion state industry. And Buffalo, to complete the analogy, is home to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and its companion group, the Broiler and Egg Association of Minnesota.
Minnesota turkey is a more than $600 million industry. And although turkey is a staple of the Minnesota diet, more of the turkey raised in the state is exported to other countries than consumed in-state.
“It’s a pretty large deal,” said Steve Olson, the executive director of both groups, of the announcement that Russia’s import ban would be lifted. “Russia is the third-largest foreign market for us.”
Russia had been the No. 2 export market for Minnesota turkey, but a rise in Chinese demand coupled with on-and-off embargos dropped it to third. Nationally, it remains the No. 1 foreign destination for U.S. turkey, with $800 million worth of turkey exported there annually.
The politics of diplomacy
On its face, the dispute centered around using chlorinated water to treat turkey, a process aimed at reducing pathogens. Given the fact that Russia had imported such treated turkey for years and years without a problem, and the fact that they seem to have no issue importing similarly treated birds from Brazil, the move seemed “arbitrary and capricious.”
Those words were used in a letter last week to President Obama, signed by 22 senators, including Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, asking him to persuade his Russian counterpart to overturn the ban.
“The cumulative effect of the actions taken by Russia’s government has been to keep U.S. products entirely out of the Russian market,” the senators wrote. “We believe the United States and Russia should work together to promote trade between our two countries and lower barriers that undermine the bilateral relationship.”
So Russia will have U.S. turkey, and with it yet another assurance that the United States will back its bid to join the WTO. However, WTO talks have stalled year after year despite such promises, and Russia has a long history of lifting one embargo just to impose another.
All that is to say that although the announcement is good news, this is very much still a wait-and-see operation.
Olson said he’s “guardedly optomistic” about the announcement ending the embargo, noting that the details of how and when the ban would be lifted have yet to be ironed out. He said he expects an announcement on that within a month or so.