Eighteen U.S. pork plants will be able to resume shipments to Russia within days after Moscow lifted a ban that had closed the United States’ fifth-largest export market for several months, officials said.

Russia’s farm produce watchdog is preparing to allow imports from even more U.S. suppliers in the near future, officials from the body said, after Washington agreed its supplies would be free of an antibiotic that violated Moscow’s food safety rules. “I have signed documents lifting restrictions on practically all U.S. suppliers,” Sergei Dankvert, head of the Rosselkhoznadzor watchdog, told reporters on the sidelines of a conference.

Rosselkhoznadzor spokesman Alexei Alexeyenko later clarified that 18 U.S. enterprises were on the list of companies no longer subject to the ban. He said the documents were signed and would take a few days to come into force.

“As soon as this is done, shipments can be renewed in full,” Alexeyenko said.

Russia and the United States have been involved in several disputes over meat supplies in recent years. Exports to Russia of pork, poultry and beef combined earned the United States more than $1.3 billion in 2008.

Poultry from the United States has been banned in Russia, the biggest U.S. export market, since Jan. 19 due to Moscow’s opposition to a chlorine wash routinely used in U.S. processing plants. Russia has said talks are progressing. The bans on pork were introduced in several stages last year on an individual plant basis. As of December, about 70 percent of U.S. pork suppliers to Russia had been banned.

List Could be Widened

Russia’s concerns centerd on the presence of the antibiotic oxytetracycline, and Moscow has taken a tough line with Washington on food safety.

Some U.S. officials have said the bans could be politically motivated or linked to Russia’s plans to increase its self-sufficiency in pork and poultry meat.

Alexeyenko said Russia was prepared to widen the list of U.S. suppliers that would no longer be subject to the pork ban, although he declined to say how many plants were still banned.

“This is the start of some very serious work. A decision has been taken in principle and the list can be widened,” he said. “The American side has given official guarantees of the safety of its products.”

The U.S. Meat Export Federation said on March 12 that Moscow had approved the resumption of imports from 11 U.S. plants. Alexeyenko said these plants were among the 18 on the list approved by Dankvert.

Smithfield Foods Inc, the largest U.S. pork producer, said at the time that Russia had agreed to resume imports from its plant at Tar Heel, North Carolina, the world’s largest pork plant.

Russia was the fifth-largest export market for U.S. pork last year, taking nearly 139,500 metric tons, data from the U.S. Meat Export Federation shows. (Reuters)