When the European Union (EU) expanded from 15 countries to 25 in mid 2004, it brought more problems than expected. One was Russia's disillusionment with losing power over some of its former satellites, Poland being one.

For years, Russia sought a single veterinary certificate from the EU that would work for all 15 countries. Since EU countries share the same health and food safety standards, having separate certificates for the United Kingdom, Denmark and Germany would be similar to having a separate certificate for Utah, Idaho and Texas.

When the EU was making preparations for the new incoming member states, including eight former Soviet republics, the Russian government began demanding the EU agree to a single certificate for all EU countries wishing to export to Russia.

In exchange, Russia was willing to incorporate “regionalization” if a disease outbreak in the EU ever occurred. Russia would agree to ban meat imports from just the affected country, or countries, rather than ban all EU imports, possibly risking up to EUR1.2 billion ($1.55 billion) in annual livestock and meat trade.

When the EU still had not come to an agreement on the single certificate by the May 1, 2004, deadline, the same date the 10 new member states joined the EU, Russia instituted a temporary ban on all imports of European meat starting June 1.

That “suspension,” as the European industry called it, was enough to get the Europeans back to the table to hammer out the last details of the certificate that went into effect Jan. 1, 2005.

Playing hardball

The new single certificate may be in day-to-day use now, but more problems came along with the new agreement. Among them is Russia's refusal to acknowledge the health and safety standards of the new countries despite EU inspection and approval as part of membership.

Russia is playing hardball, especially with Poland. It refuses to give blanket approval to meat imports from new member states until a Russian veterinarian signs off on all meat processing and export establishments that want to do business with them.

EU health and consumer protection commissioner Markos Kyprianou told agriculture ministers from all 25 countries in February that Russia's process to approve health and food safety standards in the new member states was non-transparent, slow and expensive since Russia charges the costs of the inspection to each member state.

Though he's told Russia the meat facilities have been approved for intra-EU trade, “Russia has continued to insist upon the inspections and refused to commit to speeding up the process,” Kyprianou says.

But the Russians aren't making the single-certificate process easy for the “old” member states, either.

According to Jean Luc Meriaux, European Livestock and Meat Trading Union secretary general in Brussels, the Russians are requiring a paper trail that shows every country a steer, pig or chicken has passed through or lived in. That's fair enough, he says, because all meat shipments are labeled as part of the EU's extensive traceability program. The Russians, however, are insisting on a pre-export certificate that, in a sense, is a step back for the European meat industry.

“Since the single (European) market, there are no more certificates when we deliver beef or pork from one member state to the other because all member states have to comply with the same rules,” Meriaux says. “If we want to transport a beef truck or pork truck to Russia, and we want to go through different member states, then we need a certificate. It's a burden without further improvement of traceability.”

Most problems with the new system revolve around the pre-export certificate, he says, with many complications arising due to language barriers. The Russians say they want a stamp but won't specify if it's a transport stamp or a veterinary stamp.

Beyond that, every EU country that exports to Russia must have a Russian veterinarian make spot checks on facilities or sign off on certificates. All this boosts costs and is just a result of Russian mistrust of the EU system, Meriaux says.

The European Commission says it's doing its best to iron out details on the new system with the Russians. Until that happens (perhaps years), European producers who want to be part of the lucrative Russian export market must play the Russian way.

Meghan Sapp is a U.S. journalist based in Brussels, Belgium, and writes about European Union agriculture.