US meat producers must clear only a few final hurdles before a newly inked trade deal gives them greater access to growing markets in Russia, industry groups said.

On Nov. 19, the United States and Russia signed a bilateral deal that paves the way for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. The pact settled long-standing discord on meat trade and opened the door for US beef imports for the first time since mad cow was discovered here in 2003.

“It is one of the better accession agreements that the (US Trade Representative) has been able to accomplish out of a large country,” said John Reddington, vice president for international trade at the American Meat Institute.

Under the deal, Russia will accept US beef from cows up to 30 months old.

Before that happens, though, Russian officials must inspect up to one hundred US beef plants that want to export to Russia. Officials hope those inspections will be finished in the first few months of 2007.

US meat officials are anxious to tap Russia’s market, believing higher-end beef will fare well with increasingly prosperous consumers in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“It’s a very dynamic situation ... The market is different than the market we left” in 2003, said Thad Lively, senior vice president at the US Meat Export Federation.

Increased exports of chilled beef would supplement the traditional trade in US beef livers to Russia.

The deal also keeps in place until 2009 a current quota system on reduced-tariff imports of pork and poultry. Lively said US producers would likely hit the pork quota this year, which allows an annual 55,000 tons.

In the first seven months of 2006, US pork exports to Russia were about $90 million.

Even with the quota ceiling, Lively said the deal could increase US pork’s position against competitors like Brazil and Europe because it eliminates some testing requirements.

The elimination of some tests for trichinae means that more US pork can go to the lucrative retail sector rather than being made into processed meats.

The deal doesn’t change the picture too much for poultry, the United States’ top export to Russia, but it does add a welcome element of stability to what has been a rocky trade relationship, said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council.

Russia is the biggest buyer of US chicken exports, importing more than $600 million worth in 2005. The annual import quota is 800,000 tonnes.

But Russia has blocked exports from a number of US plants and states in the past year, citing fears of salmonella and avian influenza.

The deal does add some flexibility to the way US plants are approved to export chicken to Russia, Lobb said. (Reuters)