The long-running international dispute over ractopamine, a drug used to boost growth and leanness in pork and beef production, has become even more contentious in recent weeks. Russia, which is an increasingly important export market for U.S. meat products, announced it will no longer accept meat from animals raised on the drug, and it will require countries to certify that their meat is ractopamine-free.

The move infuriated United States trade and agriculture officials, who point out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved ractopamine as safe for use in cattle, pigs and turkeys and that more than two dozen other countries have approved the drug.

“The United States is very concerned that Russia has taken these actions, which appear to be inconsistent with its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement last week. “The United States calls on Russia to suspend these new measures and restore market access for U.S. beef and pork products.”

U.S. interests believe the ban is a retaliation for the Senate approval of a bill that punished Russian officials linked to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison after accusing authorities of embezzlement. The ban was announced hours after the bill passed. Russian agriculture officials maintain that their new policy, which has been in the works for months, is not politically motivated, but a response to lingering questions about the safety of ractopamine.

The drug, which is a beta-agonist and mimics stress hormones, is fed primarily to swine and cattle in the weeks leading up to slaughter to improve the rate at which they convert feed to muscle.

“In Russia, (ractopamine) is not included in the register of products approved for use,” Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief health inspector and the head of Rosselhohznadzor (the agency charged with meat safety), told Interfax. “We can only regret that American Federation analysts on meat exports lacked even a tiny bit of imagination to classify the 27 countries of the European Union, China and all other 167 countries that have banned the use of this product as opponents of the ‘Magnitsky Act’ adopted by the U.S. Senate.”

U.S. and Canadian officials argue that Russia’s new policy violates the country’s WTO obligations, especially after the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the UN-backed international food standards body, adopted a safe residue limit for beef and pork products last summer. The standard, which had been stuck at Codex for years, was adopted by a 69-67 vote in an extremely contentious meeting that pitted the European Union, China and Russia (which all ban ractopamine) against the U.S., Canada and Brazil (which all use ractopamine).

Russia agrees with the position the EU has taken on ractopamine. The European Food Safety Authority has determined the science backing ractopamine is insufficient to determine what amount, if any, of the drug is safe for human consumption. China has long expressed concerns about the higher levels of the drug that can be found in offal, which are part of a traditional Chinese diet.

A Codex residue limit makes it easier for the U.S. and others to challenge countries like China and Russia for having zero tolerance policies for ractopamine in meat products. With an international standard in place, the World Trade Organization is much more likely to rule against any country that has a more restrictive policy. The Codex Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) is 10 parts per billion (ppb) for muscle cuts of beef and pork. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s limit is 30 ppb for beef and 50 ppb for pork.

Brazil Gives In to Russia

U.S. officials are demanding that Russia rescind the import ban on ractopamine, which essentially blocks about $500 million in U.S. exports. The U.S. Trade Representative’s chief agricultural negotiator traveled to Moscow last week for talks on the issue.

While the U.S. appears to be sticking to its guns on ractopamine, Brazil is now assuring Russia that its exports of meat products to the country will be free of ractopamine residues. A pork trade publication reported late last week that, even though Brazil and Russia were on opposite sides of the Codex vote, Brazilian officials have “expressed willingness to comply with the requirements” and “provide additional guarantees about the absence of ractopamine in production” for Brazilian meat headed to Russia.

The U.S. has not publicly signaled it will move in the same direction, but in an online document detailing the export requirements for Russia, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said, “At this time, FSIS is not requiring documentation that demonstrates that the product is free of ractopamine before issuing export certification. FSIS likely will soon provide additional instructions that will require such documentation.”

The agency already has a ractopamine-free program in place for meat headed to the European Union, which strictly bans all non-therapeutic growth promoting drugs from meat production.

For more on the food safety and animal welfare debate over ractopamine, see: “Dispute over drug in feed limiting US meat exports