Estonian meat producer cut down to size

  • 1998-10-15
  • Paul Beckman
VILNIUS - Rakvere, the Estonian-based meat product company, got a bit of good news and bad news Oct. 2.

The good news came from the Lithuanian State Veterinary Service - it approved Rakvere's monthly license to sell 160 tons of meat products in Lithuania.

The bad news arrived later from the same source. The Veternary Service had changed its mind. Suddenly, the company that predicted it would grab a third of the Lithuanian meat market by underselling local competitors appeared deflated.

According to Jonas Burokas of the Lithuanian State Veterinary Service, Rakvere's products are unacceptable by European Union (EU) standards because they have a history of importing some meat from North America.

"Lithuania and all EU countries do not allow the import of meat from America and Canada because of the use of hormones [in livestock]," said Burokas. "That is the reason Rakvere could not get a license. But I must add that this only pertains to Rakvere. We have really good relations with other Estonian companies which also sell here."

While the blow to Rakvere has not caused them to shut down shop, it has reduced the amount of meat they are allowed to sell. According to Burokas, Rakvere is allowed to sell only 20 tons of meat which the company imports from Finland, an EU member state.

Rakvere officials and the Estonian Foreign Ministry, however, are not simply accepting the Lithuanians' decision without releasing some complaints of their own.

Dimitris Ciudakovas, director of the meat company's Lithuanian office, Rakvere Lietuva, told TBT that the meat that was to be imported in Lithuania is not of American origin.

"On the day we received the Lithuanian Veterinarian Service's approval for our license, we later also received a fax that it had been revoked," recalled Ciudakovas. " Their reasons were based on a letter with an old date on it that stated that Rakvere had earlier sold meat from America. We do not sell meat from America."

The Estonian Foreign Ministry also addressed the issue by sending an official note to the Lithuanian Embassy in Tallinn. According to a ministry's press spokesperson, the note accused the Lithuanian government of "not corresponding" with an agreement which abolishes tariff barriers on trade among the three Baltic countries. A joint protocol signed by the veterinary boards of the three countries was also said to be ignored. In theory, the approval by the veterinarian board in one country should be valid in the other two countries as well. According to the Estonian Foreign Ministry, the Lithuanians have yet to offer an official response to the note.

Burokas said that Lithuanian experts visited the Estonian company, and with Estonian experts present, viewed the entire meat production process. While he admitted that no concrete evidence was found which indicated that Rakvere was currently using American meat, Burokas added that it is a tricky process.

"When viewing the process, it is extremely difficult to see whether American meat is being used or not," Burokas said. "But it was used earlier. Estonia currently does not have an agreement [which forbids the use of American meat]. In the future they will do the same as in all EU countries. Our interest is to have the best quality imports. Our relations with other Estonian companies are good and I hope in time we will come to an agreement with Rakvere."

Ciudakovas also expressed hope for an agreement as representatives involved in this field from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia meet later in October.

Some Lithuanian consumers also appeared to be sensitive about the issue. While Lithuanians often speak proudly about a number of things their country has to offer, many seem especially excited about domestic food products. By claiming the locally produced goodies are high in quality and have an all-natural reputation, some meat purchasers seemed skeptical of the Estonian-based Rakvere meat company's proclaimed plan to capture a third of the market by underselling the local competition this fall.

"Well, that's the way the market works," said one Lithuanian lady who said she regularly purchases meat. "If the Estonians or any other country think they have a chance here, then they have a right to try to sell their products. But personally, I trust Lithuanian meat the most, so that's what I buy."