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Russia's Love of Chicken Nurtures Ties With U.S.

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington, April 30 (RFE/RL) - A team of Russian food inspectors recently visited Bellingham, Washington, a pleasant university town of 55,000 people on the U.S. west coast that finds itself developing strong ties across the Pacific Ocean with the countries of the former Soviet Union, particularly Russia and Ukraine.

Located at the north end of Puget Sound, Bellingham is the closest American deep-water shipping port to Vladivostok, gateway to the Russian Far East.

The food inspectors were following up on Russia's concern for the purity of the poultry it is importing in increasing amounts from the United States. Russia already is the leading foreign market for U.S poultry suppliers. The trade was derailed briefly by the recent five-week ban imposed on U.S. chickens after Russian officials said they found poultry that failed to meet their sanitation standards.

U.S. suppliers disputed the finding, but some in the industry acknowledge that shipping abroad involves different sanitary issues. They say U.S. producers are adjusting their packing procedures.

But, according to Jerry Simmons, sales manager for the Bellingham Cold Storage company, none of the sub-standard samples came through this or any other West Coast processor. "In fact," he says, "the Russian inspectors really liked what they saw here. For one thing," he explains, "our plant is right on the water. It's so close you can almost throw the chickens onto the ship.

Simmons says this physical closeness makes it easier for Bellingham to control standards and less likely that frozen meat might partially thaw through mishandling in transit from one storage or processing area to another.

Simmons says the ban was brief enough to have had little effect on Bellingham Cold Storage, even though the 50 year old company now relies on sales to the Russian Far East for about a tenth of its annual revenue. He says a top executive of the company is now in Vladivostok to meet with a Russian partner in a new joint venture. The partners lease space in Vladivostok's Rybniport Cold Storage. There, shipments of frozen chicken and increasing amounts of vegetables and fresh fruit - particularly the apples for which Washington state is the leading American producer - are transferred and prepared for shipment throughout Russia.

Actually, says Simmons, the developing trade is far more complex than simply shipping out American chickens or importing Russian fish. Last week, for example, a Ukraine freighter called at the Bellingham dock to unload some of the cargo that it had picked up in South America before sailing off for Shanghai with the rest.

This week and next at least two Russian freighters are due in to pick up more frozen poultry as well as some other products. Simmons says his firm deals with the Russian shipping company FESCO, based in Vladivostok. FESCO ships are now calling regularly every six weeks.

This new market for Bellingham began developing less than three years ago. The first ship from the former Soviet Union arrived in November 1993. It was the Ukrainian freighter Dvinsky Zaliv, which unloaded a cargo of frozen fish and hauled away frozen chickens. The Dvinsky Zaliv made news as the largest ship ever to call at the Bellingham company's dock.

The Ukrainian vessel was followed shortly by two Russian freighters, the Bukhtra Novik and the Ilya Mechnikov. They sailed away filled with a million and a half tons of frozen U.S.chickens, bound for Petropovovsk on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. Regular shipments have continued since.

This growing trade adds to Bellingham's long-standing shipments of lumber, wood chips and paper products to Asian customers. Simmons says the regular trading pattern with the Russian Far East has helped his company achieve a long-standing goal of increasing full-time, year-round employment.