Russia bans food imports from West, but says it has nothing to do with sanctions
Faults found in fruit, cheese and other products have nothing to do with sanctions, insists Russia
As the United States and Europe step up economic sanctions against Russia, Moscow's food-safety epidemiologists have been working overtime.
In the past few weeks, Russian agricultural and consumer watchdog agencies have announced the discovery of harmful levels of antibiotics in US poultry, contaminants in Ukrainian dairy, pests in European produce and bacteria in US fast food. They have either imposed or threatened blanket bans on products in response to the reported "violations".
Russian agencies claim it is a coincidence that the products are from countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia for its support of a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine or have otherwise angered the Kremlin.
But experts say the bans are highly politicised gestures in classic Russian diplomatic style. And because it may be too domestically costly for Russia to respond to measures restricting guns, oil exploration and banks in kind, they have settled for sticking it to fruit, cheese and fast food.
"There is always a regulatory agency, environmental agency, or something ready to act," said Konstantin Sonin, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, explaining that the tactics are common in Russia.
As evidence of the link to sanctions, Sonin pointed to the publicity devoted to the recent food bans in state-run media. "You can tell by the way it was reported," he said. "It would not be such a very big thing if this was a local issue."
Indeed, Russian media has been almost as committed to reporting the unfolding serial drama of food regulations as it has to documenting the cross-border dispute between Russia and Ukraine.
The first significant restrictions were directed at dairy products from Ukraine. Many of those products have been blocked from Russian markets since Ukrainians in Kiev's Independence Square ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February; the rest were formally curtailed in late July.
Fruits and vegetables from Moldova, which, like Ukraine, agreed this summer to formally affiliate itself with the European Union, were the next to hit the chopping block.
In the past few days, the scope of the limitations has expanded rapidly. As of Friday, Russian officials have banned most grain imports from Ukraine, stopped bringing in produce from Poland and are murmuring about potentially expanding the food blacklist to include European fruits and vegetables, US chickens, and flagship items from US fast-food restaurant chains such as McDonald's, Burger King and KFC, according to reports.
Separately this week, Wendy's fast-food outlet announced it would be closing its locations in Russia.
The situation has befuddled exporters, leaving them wondering how their products have run afoul of Russian regulations overnight - and how they became pawns in a diplomatic game.
James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, said: "It's somewhat surprising that at this point we would come under increased scrutiny, after a pretty long track record of working pretty seamlessly with Russian officials."