Russia is once again warning Norway it could imminently shut off all Norwegian imports of fresh fish, although Norway's food safety authority says a blanket ban is highly unlikely.
Norwegian fresh fish exporters could be cut off from Russia as soon as late April/early May, a spokesperson for the Russian veterinary agency, Rosselkhoznadzor, told Undercurrent News on Friday, April 19.
The last time such a warning was issued, almost exactly a year from now, it ended in 13 Norwegian exporters being shut off from Russia. They remain banned to this day.
“Norway’s food safety authority [Mattilsynet] and companies must make a proposal next week [week 17] detailing appropriate safeguards and a plan to improve the safety of their product. If [this is not supplied], they could see all fresh imports blocked,” the spokesperson said.
The main problem lies in unsatisfactory microbiological levels of salmon imports from Norway, and in the fact exporters lack adequate certificates, said the spokesperson. Referring to the latter problem, he said, “There have been 51 infringements of this kind since mid-January.”
The warning has a familiar ring. Almost exactly a year from now, on April 12, 2012, Rosselkhoznadzor similarly threatened to plug all Norwegian fresh fish imports due to unsatisfactory sanitary conditions.
Then, like now, the agency warned the ban could be imposed imminently unless Norwegian authorities could table satisfactory proposals. In the end, restrictions were imposed on 13 Norwegian factories, after which Mattilsynet and Rosselkhoznadzor agreed to carry out joint inspections in Norway.
Those businesses are still shut out from the Russian market, said Mattilsynet.
Russia is Norway's largest and fastest growing seafood market. It accounted for more than 55% of total trout exports in 2012, or 95,700 metric tons, and 12.7% of total salmon imports, or 144,702t. That was 26% up from 2011.
'Blanket ban unlikely'
This time, the warning was issued on April 19, following a meeting the same day between Evgeny Nepoklonov of Rosselkhoznadzor and Bjorn Rothe Knudtsen of Mattilsynet.
However, a blanket ban is highly unlikely, Knudtsen told Undercurrent.
Rosselkhoznadzor’s complaints are specifically about five exporters, which it says have had an increasing amount of sanitary problems with their exports in the past two months, Knudtsen said.
Mattilsynet is informing those companies of the complaints and taking the appropriate steps, he added.
“We would be surprised if we don’t manage to find a solution,” Knudtsen said.
Knudtsen was positive that the dialogue between Mattilsynet and Rosselkhoznadzor was on a good footing. In the meeting on Friday, it was agreed that talks would now be held regularly and more frequently than now (they currently speak every six months). "That's positive... it will lead to easier communication with faster follow-ups."
The language from Mattilsynet is decidedly more measured than that of its Russian counterpart. During the meeting, which was initiated by Russia, Rosselkhoznadzor said Nepoklonov expressed “very serious concern” over several cases of microbial contamination and listeria in Norwegian fish imports, including trout and salmon, in recent weeks. These violations are systematic, said Nepoklonov, according to a statement from Rosselkhoznadzor.
The same statement says Nepoklonov underlined the problem with inadequate certificates and product packaging, and said Mattilsynet had failed to live up to its promise of providing all copies of products to Russia by email in real time. Rosselkhoznadzor’s problem is more with Mattilsynet than with specific businesses, said Nepoklonov.
This underlines the reality that in Russia, such issues lie much more within the realm of the state’s responsibilities, than in Norway, Knudtsen said. Mattilsynet stresses companies are ultimately responsible for ensuring that they meet safety criteria if those, as is the case with Russia, go beyond the Norwegian framework, he said.
Referring to the claims of inadequate certifcates, he said Rosselkhoznadzor's complaints were not detailed enough and Mattilsynet had requested more information as a result.
The complaints do not only go one way. A year on from being shut off from the Russian market, the 13 companies banned last year are still on what Rosselkhoznadzor calls "temporary restrictions", a euphemism for temporary ban.
“Norwegian companies are not happy that Russia has not taken steps to re-allow those companies to the market, even though Mattilsynet has fulfilled its part of the agreement,” Knudtsen said.
That part of the bargain included inspections by both Rosselkhoznadzor and Mattilsynet, after which Mattilsynet ensured the issues were addressed, and sent a report to its Russian counterpart stating this. “A long time has now gone by without Russia taking any steps to re-allow those exporters,” Knudtsen said.
A look at Rosselkhoznadzor's list of Norwegian exporters to Russia shows 12 of the 13 exporters banned last year are still on "temporary restrictions", while the last one, Hofseth, no longer features on the list, nor as approved or banned. Another three businesses are shown to be under restrictions.
The warning comes against the backdrop of an ongoing investigation into alleged cartel activities by Russia’s largest salmon importers.
The investigation was started in January 2012 by Russia’s Federal Anti-Monopoly Agency, over suspicions that Rosselkhoznadzor and Russia’s largest salmon importers colluded to unfairly protect their market interests.
According to those suspicions, Rosselkhoznadzor has been using makeshift sanitary pretenses to favor Russia’s largest importers, for instance, by shutting out exporters who would not sign exclusive agreements with those importers.
The investigation is still going on, and a hearing is reportedly scheduled for this week. If found guilty, the salmon importers could stand to be fined 1-15% of their turnover, said one industry source in Russia. FAS did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.
Mattilsynet is very consciously staying out of this, Knudtsen said. Such matters are beyond the authority’s remit, and must be taken up with competition authorities, he added.