Russian poultry ban still threatens poultry industry, but are we looking far enough ahead?

Russia agreed in late June to lift a five-month-old ban on U.S. poultry, following talks between presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. The ban was the net result of Russia’s new limits on the amount of chlorine disinfectant that U.S. poultry producers are allowed to use on the meat. The action resulted in an 84 percent drop in poultry exports to Russia as of the end of April–a hard blow for the industry, as Russia had been its biggest importer.

The recent reinstatement of trade privileges was the result of an agreement between the two nations to replace chlorine with three other disinfectants: cetylpyridinium chloride, hydrogen peroxide, and peroxyacetic acid. Basically, U.S. poultry producers were expected to comply with the same requirements as Russian poultry producers, and some U.S. facilities began changing over.

Just a few days ago, the plot thickened when, having seen no real action by Russia to fulfill the commitment, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) urged the Russian government to reopen Russia’s markets in a joint letter sent to Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak.

“Russia’s refusal to resume poultry trade with the U.S. demonstrates a serious lack of commitment to the agreement reached by the two countries in June,” said Lincoln. “By creating an arbitrary trade barrier, Russia continues to hamper progress in U.S.-Russian relations. As Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I intend to make sure the Russian government lives up to their commitment to resume fair and open U.S. poultry imports.”

This is not good news for the poultry industry or the American economy, which owes roughly half a million jobs to that industry.

Yet, there’s still another picture here, from a public health standpoint: the fact that many disinfectants–not just chlorine–that  are considered safe for food processing bring their own health dangers to consumers (not to mention to the environment, but that’s another story). I look forward to future testing of ozone as a direct contact disinfectant for poultry and other foods. It’s been tried with remarkable results on fish, leaving no measurable traces of carcinogens, toxins, or dangerous byproducts. Anecdotal evidence even indicates that it increases the shelf life of fish, presumably because the pathogen-kill facilitated by ozone is so thorough.

Though this is an undeniably tough period for the poultry industry, and I don’t, for a moment, mean to minimize that, I do believe it’s important to continue discussions about the safety of chlorine–and other chemicals used for disinfection of food products. We should demand ever greater safety standards for the chemicals in which we bathe our food, and based on everything I know, I still stand in the ozone camp. If the United States were to switch over to this superlatively safe (and green) option for food disinfection, wouldn’t we be solving a host of future concerns before they become problems?

Edward Moore is a project manager and water treatment analyst for American Water Purification, Inc.