Everyone knows the phrase, “the customer is always right.” Meeting customer needs and demands is an accepted part of doing business. But, when the business is exporting US poultry, and the customer is Russia, it’s easier said than done.

Russia has always been an important export market for the US poultry industry – in particular for chicken-leg quarters. Traditionally, US poultry has accounted for almost 80 percent of Russia’s total poultry imports. However, in 2010 the rules changed. Russia’s trade officials banned chicken from countries using chlorine in poultry processing beginning Jan. 1, 2010. Chlorine is used in the chilling process as a part of pathogen reduction.

Russia’s ban on chlorine usage had an immediate impact on the US market, according to Richard Lobb, director of communications for the National Chicken Council, Washington, D.C. “Exports to Russia will decrease from $750 million in 2009 to less than $250 million in 2010, a two-thirds decrease,” he says. “Russia will drop from the top export market to the fifth-largest market.”

At the time of the Russian ban, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia was merely joining the European Union in banning – for foodsafety reasons – chickens from chlorine-using countries. Regardless of the motivation behind the ban, US poultry processors looking to export to Russia were forced to make some unplanned changes in their processing plants this year.

“US companies have always viewed Russia as an important market,” says James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council. “The industry’s position continues to be that Russia is the customer and companies will produce what the customer wants. We’re hopeful that Russia remains a good market for US product for some years to come.”

Negotiation process
Complying with Russian demands was not simply a matter of eliminating chlorine from the production processes. Russian and US government officials had to first negotiate the acceptable alternatives to chlorine usage followed by Russian follow-up with companies to verify compliance. In June, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev negotiated with President Barack Obama and agreed to lift the ban. However, an overall lift of the ban wasn’t enough to enable US processors to restart exports. Each company then had to be reviewed for individual compliance by the Russian government.

“Plants have gotten re-listed by Russia by applying to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which, in turn, applies to the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance (VPSS) of the Ministry of Agriculture of Russia,” Lobb says. “NCC’s role was to work with the US Trade Representative’s Office and USDA to help determine an acceptable package of new requirements.”

“We appreciate the efforts of our government, particularly the US Trade Representative’s Office and USDA, who spent a lot of time getting an agreement with the Russians to end the standoff, which was agreed upon by both presidents,” Sumner added.

Under the new requirements, US chicken companies were told they could replace the chlorinated rinse with one of three alternatives: cetylpyridinium chloride, peroxyacetic acid or hydrogen peroxide.

“When Russia banned the use of chlorine in January, companies decided that they could use other approved compounds, such as peroxyacetic acid, that would enable them to produce product for Russia, while at the same time meeting USDA standards for pathogen reduction,” Sumner says. “Therefore, some companies dedicated certain plants to produce leg quarters for Russia, and breast meat for the US market.

“Other US poultry companies that aren’t exporting to Russia still routinely use chlorine, which is a completely safe and effective anti-microbial agent that is approved by USDA for use in the chiller and rinse water in poultry plants,” he added.

According to NCC, around 50 slaughter plants in the US made the switch from chlorine in order to resume their pre-existing exports to Russia. Most of the larger US poultry processing companies were among the 50 plants, including Sanderson Farms, Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride.

Pilgrim’s plants in Boaz, Ala., and Russellville, Ala., implemented a peroxyacetic acid system to comply with Russian guidelines. Following the announcement that Pilgrim’s plant could resume exports to Russia, Don Jackson, Pilgrim’s Pride president and CEO, said, “We are pleased that the new agreement is in place and we look forward to resuming export shipments to Russia as soon as possible . Russia is an important export market for US chicken and the re-opening of the borders will be a significant benefit to our company and industry.”

Pilgrim’s Pride resumed its exports to Russia in early September. Tyson also resumed exports at that time; Sanderson Farms was able to restart its exports in August.

Altering the status quo
According to various industry experts, the change from using chlorine to using a substitute antimicrobial has been a challenge mostly because the system has been in place for so long.

“Chlorine is relatively inexpensive and it’s effective and we’ve used it in the poultry industry forever,” says Dr. Christine Alvarado, associate professor in poultry processing and products at Texas A&M Univ. “Most plants I’ve talked to are making the switch to peroxyacetic acid and they’re getting good results. Some are adding a finishing chiller and are meeting or exceeding the Salmonella standards that they’ve had in the past.”

Adapting to the new practice involves more than merely flipping a switch, Sumner adds. “Anytime a company has to revamp its methods of producing a product, it’s difficult. But our industry is highly adaptable.”

Some companies are just changing processes in the plants that produce the Russian export products, while others are using this push for no chlorine as the impetus for changing all their plant systems, Alvarado says. “The industry as a whole wasn’t too resistant to making the change,” she adds. “Most companies realized they didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter, so they went about making changes without too much complaint or resistance.”

Even if there wasn’t much resistance to making the changes, many in the industry are still asking questions and trying to figure out what brought about the Russian chlorine ban in the first place. As previously stated, Putin did go on record saying he was simply following the EU’s lead on banning chlorine for food-safety reasons, but is there more to it?

When asked if the chlorine ban was politically motivated, Sumner answers, “That’s a question for the Russians.”

Alvarado adds, “I think we live in a global society and it’s hard not to think that these things are in some way politically motivated.

“Chlorine is not an unsafe product. It’s a good antimicrobial, and it works well if used properly. There aren’t a lot of issues associated with it,” she explains. “However, people in the EU really feel that chlorine has negative effects and is bad in the food supply even though we, in the US, have studies that have shown differently.

“I really think people in the EU think it’s an issue of food safety, and the European community does influence people,” she says. “So, of course some of this is politically driven – but I wouldn’t say it was all political.”

Industry impact
As processors finish making processing adjustments to their plants and exports to Russia resume, industry experts and academia are following up with research to see how effective the changes have been, how many companies have changed their processing systems and what kind of financial impact the ban has made.

Auburn University, in partnership with NCC, North American Meat Processors Association and USAPEEC, will be hosting a Salmonella and Campylobacter reduction conference at the International Poultry Expo in January. The university is conducting a research study of the US poultry industry to gather updated information to present at the conference. Surveys were sent out to about 90 percent of US poultry processors – specifically to the corporate offices that direct plant food safety.

“We worked closely with NCC and USAPEEC to develop a thorough survey, designed to get the answers that everyone in the industry is interested in,” says Dr. Shelly McKee, associate professor, department of poultry science at Auburn Univ. “We asked specific questions about their processing systems from the time the birds enter the facility to when the product leaves. We want to know what systems they used to have in place and what has changed. We asked about the physical steps they take to reduce pathogens, as well as the chemicals they use.

“Not everyone is getting away from chlorine,” she says. “Medium and small processors who don’t have any interest in exporting are still using chlorine because it’s an effective, inexpensive method. This survey is taking a look at the entire industry and will show what everyone is doing now.”