You may not have heard of Gennady Onishchenko, but if his own accounts are to be believed, he’s the Russian government official who single-handedly averts major public health crises posed by foreign countries’ dangerously lax and unsophisticated food safety standards (including those in a certain country where the federal government has ground to a halt). To others, Onishchenko, Russia’s chief sanitary inspector, is also Russia’s chief manufacturer of elaborate food safety scares to wage geopolitically motivated trade wars with other countries, particularly former Soviet republics.
On Wednesday, Onishchenko, the director of Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s consumer-protection agency, announced a ban on 28 Georgian alcoholic products, a mere seven months after a 2006 ban on Georgian beverages was lifted. Earlier this week, he added Lithuanian dairy products to the long list of (mostly) ex-Soviet state-made products that ostensibly threaten Russian consumers. Further down on that list are Ukrainian chocolates, Moldovan wine, and – yes – meat from the United States. Notably, many of these bans came on the heels of warming trade relations between the banned countries and NATO or the European Union – moves that aren’t popular with the Kremlin, which is trying to strong-arm its neighbors into joining a Russian-led customs union.
Onishchenko feels strongly about the value of eating Russian food – and only Russian food. At a press briefing earlier this year, he implored Russians to suppress their hankering for foreign foods in favor of “food patriotism.”
“We put our faith in the high level of consciousness and food patriotism of our citizens, the ones who have long abandoned the use of such food in their diet,” he said.
This “food patriotism” was undoubtedly at the root of Onishchenko’s war on hamburgers last year, when he reminded Russians that hamburgers “are not a good choice of meal for residents of Moscow and of Russia. This is not our cuisine.”
Onishchenko has repeatedly denied that his agency’s bans on foreign products are politically motivated, but the circumstances surrounding the prohibitions suggest otherwise. Take the case of this year’s ban on the Ukrainian confectionary company Roshen; Onishchenko was supposedly concerned about carcinogens found in milk chocolate – but only in the chocolate produced in Ukraine, not in the company’s two factory locations in other countries. The ban also came in September, after a major dust-up between Russia and Ukraine over gas pipelines and in the run-up to November’s Eastern Partnership summit, where Ukraine may sign a free trade agreement with the EU. If Kiev signs the agreement, the government will decline membership in the Russian-led Eurasian customs union.
Similarly, this week’s renewed ban on Georgian drinks does not apply to the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, where the product’s quality apparently “remains stable.”
The reasoning behind the Roshen chocolate ban may have been flawed, but it was at least easier to understand than the vague non-reasoning Onishchenko offered for the Lithuanian dairy ban. “Nobody knows exactly what indications Russian customs have or what the reasons are for the sanctions,” Arturas Paulauskas, the head of the Lithuanian parliament’s National Security and Defense Committee, told Reuters in a statement.