RIGA - Exports of Latvian sprats to Russia remained blocked despite the appearance of a letter from Russian authorities reportedly lifting a ban on the popular canned good, Latvian sprat producers said.
Russian media reported last week that the ban, which was placed on select Latvian sprat producers last October, was lifted after Russia's Federal Customs Service sent out a letter to border control points outlining new procedures for processing Latvian canned fish goods.
However, the letter reportedly does not indicate a change in Russian norms that led to the ban'snamely, a reduction in the product's level of benzopyrene. As a result, many Latvian canned fish producers are not taking any risks and have refused to export their output to Russia for fear that it could be subsequently ceased, the Latvian Fish Canneries Association said.
"Until the norm is reconsidered, we're not going to send our product to Russia," said Arnold Babris, CEO of Brivais Vilnis, a leading canned fish producer, adding that although the customs letter exists, an exporter still needs to obtain a certificate.
He said that he wouldn't even risk sending those products that border on the Russian norm since a second laboratory analysis could easily come up with a different number.
Russia banned canned fish from two Latvian processors 's Brivais Vilnis and Gamma-A'sin October for excessive levels of benzopyrene, a carcinogenic substance found in charbroiled foods. The permissible level in Russia is 1 microgram per kilogram of fish, while in Europe the level is five times higher, or 5 micrograms per kilogram.
The ban on the two firms' output was followed by a sales ban on the canned fish products of five more Latvian companies in early November, a move which further complicated the situation in Latvia's fish processing industry. Several firms were forced to lay off employees.
For Latvia, sprats are a matter of national pride'sas synonymous with Latvia as balsams or Riga Champagne'sso the ban was perceived as being a political maneuver on Moscow's part to strengthen its negotiating position vis-a-vis both Latvia and the European Union.
"It is not a question of benzopyrene, but a question of political will to solve the problem," Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks said at a recent Cabinet meeting.
In the past year, Moscow has banned a range of foodstuffs in Europe, including Polish meat products and Norwegian salmon, not to mention wine and water from Moldova and Georgia.
Brivais Vilnis, which was arguably hit the hardest by the ban, reacted by proving that Russian-made sprats violate the benzopyrene norm. Babris sent several samples of smoked Russian fish to a German lab, and the results showed that Russian fish contained more of the carcinogen than Latvian equivalents.
To be fair, Russian health inspectors have pulled Russian fish goods violating the benzopyrene norm from shelves, Babris said.
A bilateral working group has been formed to resolve the issue, but so far no noticeable progress has been made.
Looking ahead, canned fish producers said a breakthrough could materialize if the two governments finally sign a border agreement, which could take place in February.
In the meantime, Babris said he and other producers were preparing a proposal for the European Commission to consider lowering the benzopyrene limit since even 5 micrograms per kilogram of fish is too high.
In China, the legal limit of benzopyrene is 10 micrograms, Babris said.