Faced with sanctions over Ukraine, Russia resorts to food fight with the West

As Western countries launch each new salvo of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has returned fire with bans on food imports -- ostensibly for consumer protection.

Milk, cheese and onions from Ukraine, Greek peaches, Serbian prunes, Polish apples and cabbage, Spanish meat -- according to Russia's food safety regulator Rosselkhoznadzor all these products contain toxic elements, are infected with dangerous bacteria or violate other regulations.

In recent weeks, while Brussels and Washington discussed new sanctions, Rosselkhoznadzor on a near daily basis has uncovered a new foreign food threat to Russian consumers, ordering bans on products from the EU or United States.

Last Friday, it was Poland who had a ban slapped on its fruit and vegetables for "repeated violations" of food safety certificates.

One of the staunchest supporters of the Ukrainian government, which is battling pro-Russian separatists allegedly supported by Moscow, Poland has now lost a market worth more than one billion euros ($1.3 billion) per year, according to official statistics.

Before that, the watchdog had imposed bans on Ukrainian potatoes, soya, juice, canned fruit and vegetables, milk, cheese and other agricultural products because of traces of antibiotics or labelling violations.

Rosselkhoznadzor has also threatened to block powdered milk from EU member Latvia, US chickens and bourbon and all Ukrainian food products.

- 'Measures resemble revenge' -

The reason cited by the Russian authorities for the bans is always the same -- consumer protection and the health of the population -- but never political motives.

"What political decision?" said the head of agriculture committee of the Russian Parliament, Nikolai Pankov, this past week.

"Ukraine is a country at war... Why should we import meat, for example, (from animals) killed by mortar fire?"

Rosselkhoznadzor is operating in step with consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor, whose previous chief Gennady Onishchenko was flippantly dubbed the "minister of foreign microbes" during Russia's previous fights with trade partners.

"It is clearly, in reality, a reaction to sanctions, a continuation of diplomacy by other means," said Russian political analyst Konstantin Kalachev.

"All these measures resemble revenge against countries perceived as hostile."

Russia has often been accused of using trade as a weapon, in particular citing health reasons to ban food imports as a means to pressure its neighbours.

It slapped a ban on wine from Georgia in 2006 as the ex-Soviet nation pursued an increasingly Western-oriented policy, hitting its biggest export item to Russia. The embargo was tightened when the two fought a brief war in 2008, and was lifted only last year.

More recently Moscow limited imports of meat, fruit and wine from Moldova after the ex-Soviet republic signed a free trade deal with the EU in June.

Previously Moldova, like Ukraine, had benefitted from privileged trade relations with Russia.

Moscow has warned it may need to take protective measures to shield its economy and consumers as the two ex-Soviet countries begin implementing the free trade deals with the EU.

- 'Propaganda effect' -

Russia may be able to replace some imports by turning to other countries, but it is still heavily dependent on food imports, which account for around a third of total consumption.

Its self-sufficiency is also undermined by being heavily dependent on imported seeds, pesticides and farm equipment.

Yet Europe is not the only region to have been targeted, with Moscow slapping a near total ban on imports of US meat in 2013 after the US Senate approved sanctions against numerous Russian officials.

US fast food giant McDonald's is also feeling the heat.

Consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor has filed a court case seeking to block a range of the burger restaurant's products for mislabelling the calorie content and not meeting food safety regulations.

"We found violations that make us doubt the quality and safety of food products in the entire McDonald's chain," a spokeswoman for Rospotrebnadzor said.

McDonald's, which has operated in Russia since January 1990 and now has 430 locations throughout the country, said the consumer watchdog had not informed the company of its complaints.

"Other than their economic effects, these measures have a larger propaganda effect: Russia's self-sufficiency and import substitution," said Kalachev.

"These measures are supported by a majority of Russian society because people don't feel they have suffered at all," he added.