The Kremlin has dropped a fish and meat bomb on New Zealand. The casualties are reported to be women, children and the elderly forced to eat food formerly sold to Russia; together with fishermen and farmers whose annual income of US$100 million from exports to Russia has been lost since the start of the Ukraine war.
After the New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, attacked Russian policy in Syria and on September 26 issued a public insult to President Vladimir Putin, Moscow reacted with the announcement, nine days later, that New Zealand (NZ) exports of meat and fish may be banned from the Russian market. The NZ media have broadcast the prime minister’s attack on Putin; they are not revealing the Russian reaction. NZ government organs, including the NZ Ambassador to Moscow, Ian Hill, refuse to acknowledge the threatened food ban, or to discuss what is happening.
On October 5, Sergei Dankvert (below, left), head of the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance (Rosselkhoznadzor, RSN – below right), announced that a ban was being considered after traces of mercury had been found in imports of NZ fish and of listeria bacteria in imports of NZ meat.
“We are considering restrictive measures regarding products from New Zealand,” Dankvert reportedly said. “It concerns fish and chilled meat,” he added. “Summing it up, we are going to consider the need to impose restrictions on a number of products or for certain types of products.” The Tass news agency report can be read here.
There is no official release from RSN. Asked to clarify the details, Dankvert’s spokesman, Yulia Melano, responded by saying that RSN laboratory testing had found “an excess of mercury in fish and also the presence of listeria. Also, the monitoring proved the presence of listeria in meat from New Zealand.”
Listeria monocytogenes (right) has been identified by the US.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “an important public health problem in the United States. The disease primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems… People get listeriosis by eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes… Animals can carry the bacterium without appearing ill and can contaminate foods of animal origin, such as meats and dairy products.”
According to Melano, RSN is now “monitoring new supplies. If the presence of mercury and listeria remains, this production will be banned until the normalisation of these points. Milk and butter [imported from NZ] are also under control, but everything is in the normal grade with them. The NZ side was informed about the first results of the testing. But there was no reaction nor discussions because the testing isn’t finished yet. Possibly it is a single case. Now we are collecting information from the regions before making the final decision.” Asked when the testing had taken place, and the mercury and listeria discovered, Melano said she did not remember, and referred the question to Dankvert’s office. He has said nothing more.
The NZ Embassy in Moscow was asked when Rosselkhoznadzor (RSN) had notified the New Zealand side about the testing results for mercury and listeria; what products had been tested; and what subsequent discussions have been held by RSN and their NZ counterparts. Charles Gillard, Second Secretary Trade and Economic at the Embassy, replied: “We have passed your questions on to our authorities in Wellington, and are currently awaiting their response.”
He was followed on Wednesday by a NZ Government spokesman from Wellington. He said: “We are aware of media reports in Russia, quoting a Russian official, suggesting that restrictive measures may be placed on New Zealand meat and fish. We have not been formally notified of the matter by the Russian authorities. The New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries is working to seek greater clarity in relation to the comments. New Zealand and Russian technical agencies will continue to work constructively to ensure the highest standards of food safety can be applied to imports and exports between our two countries.”
Gillard and his Wellington colleagues did not provide trade volume or value statistics for the exports of NZ meat and fish to Russia. Instead, they claimed “you can find detailed trade statistics on the Statistics New Zealand website: stats.govt.nz, particularly the Global New Zealand statistics year book.” In practice, this is impossible.
Russia accounts for a much bigger proportion of NZ’s imports than NZ’s share of the Russian import market. NZ trade statistics for Russia by product and by year cannot be accessed from the government’s statistical service website. Russian trade statistics for NZ are easier to access, though they omit part of the NZ butter trade with Russia, which comes via Europe and is not accounted for as a direct export. In the past, butter has been Russia’s principal import from NZ.
Notwithstanding, the picture is clear. The Ukraine war, and the NZ government’s decision to ally itself with the US and the European Union, has cut NZ’s export value to Russia in half, and is costing NZ about US$100 million per year. Russian exports to NZ are less affected. They are almost entirely oil and petroleum products; in volume and value they peaked in 2011, fell back in 2012, but they have been rising since then.