Oh, how long ago Sochi seems. Hard to believe that it has only been six months since Russia played host to the Winter Olympics, that budget-busting, multibillion-dollar pageant of sportsmanship-as-symbol-of-international-comity. With the world watching, of course a slew of big American companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola ante up big bucks to emblazon their logos on everything in an attempt to fuel their own marketing machines with a bit of that fleeting feel-good buzz.
And I do mean fleeting. Today tensions between Russia and the West are plummeting to rock bottom, owing, of course, to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and everything that’s followed (e.g., that downed Malaysian airliner). Last week, both the United States and the European Union announced yet another round of even tougher economic sanctions against Russia, targeting such foundational economic sectors as the country’s finance, arms, and energy industries.
Russia’s response? Ban Kentucky bourbon.
Trust me, I looked high and low for evidence equating Russia’s sudden disdain for a particular brand of American-made bourbon with, say, the U.S. Treasury Department's barring new financing to some of Russia’s largest banks. Indeed, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported last year that a quarter of Russian households were buying whiskey, with a 5 percent spike among those between 18 and 25.
You might—might—be able to make something out of that if Russia were banning all U.S. bourbon. After all, exports broke the $1 billion mark for the first time last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. But it’s not. Just a single label is being blocked: Kentucky Gentleman. (With a name like that, you probably don’t need the Los Angeles Times to tell you it’s “a relatively inexpensive brand.”)
Russia’s national consumer watchdog agency, Rospotrebnadzor, claims it has found trace amounts of phthalates, a type of industrial solvent, in the bourbon, which is produced by Barton Brands distillery in Kentucky, a subsidiary of Sazerac.
Far from a public health crisis, however, the move is more likely part of what appears to be a strategy of passive aggression on the part of the Russians in response to growing economic pressure from the West. While Russia was more than happy to let the Golden Arches reign over the Sochi Olympics, for example, last week Rospotrebnadzor announced it was suing McDonald’s for a spate of violations, including allegations of food contaminated with dangerous bacteria. The agency has also reportedly launched investigations of Burger King and KFC. Meanwhile, Russian officials have banned most grain imports from Ukraine (no surprise) and barred Polish produce from entering the country, according to The Washington Post, supposedly because of high levels of pesticides—and not because Poland has allied itself with the EU and the West (wink).
Of course, as the Post points out, Russia could decide to start playing hardball, moving beyond food safety straw men. It could, for example, toss out carefully negotiated arms control treaties or wreak havoc on ongoing efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. There's also the Eurasian Union, a $3 trillion trade union to be composed of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan that's in the works. But it seems the Russians may be taking the whole idea of a diplomatic game of chicken a bit too literally. According to the Post, next up on the list of foods they may block? U.S. chickens. Which were banned by the Kremlin back in 1996.
Free Range is a biweekly column that covers the often weird and sometimes wonderful world of food industry news. From the latest hits at the drive-through to the front lines of the battle over restaurant wages, Free Range is your source for news and commentary on the latest in food. The opinions expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Participant Media.