Russia appears ready to impose sanctions on American fast food, and may have begun that process on Friday, by filing a lawsuit against McDonald’s (Макдональдс), the largest fast food chain across Russia. Anna Popova, head of Rospotrebnadzora (Роспотребнадзора), Russia’s federal consumer protection service, said in a statement that McDonald’s was cited for selling mislabeled food packaging, and tainted fish sandwiches, ice cream, and milk shakes.
McDonald’s of Russia, a Russian corporation, immediately posted a notice on their Russian language website stating that the restaurant chain had not been contacted by government inspectors. The website notice claimed that McDonald’s officials had no knowledge of any alleged violations. Popova filed a lawsuit in Moscow on Friday, charging that nutritional information displayed on McDonald’s food packaging labels was misleading.
The government’s suit is asking that McDonald’s be ordered to stop sales of the Royale Cheeseburger (the Russian name for the Quarter Pounder sandwich), McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich, the “Mac Chicken” sandwich, and all milk shake and ice cream products. Following the McDonald’s closure of three restaurants in Crimea, the Moscow Times published the results of a poll showing that 62 percent of those polled were in favor of closing the chain.
A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 13 in Moscow’s Tverskoi District court. Popova told the Interfax news agency, “We have identified violations which put the product quality and safety of the entire McDonald’s chain in doubt.”
Recently McDonald’s was fined 70,000 rubles (approximately $2,000) for undefined food “irregularities.” If Russia appears ready to impose sanctions on American fast food, it would not be the first time that the country has waged a proxy war via economic sanctions. In 2006, after the former Soviet Republic of Moldova elected a pro-American government, Russia banned the import of wines from Moldova, claiming that Moldovan wines contained pesticides. Leading up to the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia declared that Georgian wines failed to meet sanitary standards. Earlier this month, Russian authorities announced a ban on Ukrainian dairy products, due to alleged “harmful” ingredients.
There are 418 McDonald’s outlets in Russia, and the newest member of the chain was opened last week in Russia’s third largest city, Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. Exporting the fast food restaurant giant to Russia was the brainchild of George Cohon, founder and chairman of the McDonald’s Corporation of Canada. The first McDonald’s restaurant opened in Moscow in 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and over 30,000 Russians waited in long lines on opening day to get their first taste of an American Big Mac.
Today, McDonald’s of Russia is Russian-owned, and ties to the U.S. are minimal beyond the normal corporate structuring of any franchise operation. The attack on McDonald’s of Russia is largely symbolic, and an indication of how relations between the two nations have deteriorated. McDonald’s has maintained high visibility in Russia via advertising and public relations; the company was a corporate sponsor of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
As for the possibility of serving tainted food, Russian News agency RBK recently reported that most products sold in McDonald’s stores in Russia are produced by Russian firms. A few items originate in Latvia and Belarus, but the large majority of food is grown, and produced, in Russia. Even the Heinz mayonnaise and ketchup products are made under contract with a Russian firm in the Leningradskaya Oblast (St Peterburg region).
Some Russian business people feel that punishing McDonald’s may play well for a time, but eventually the local Russian firms supplying McDonald’s food will suffer the most. Russia may appear ready to impose sanctions on American fast food, but the Russian consumer may also have something to say about the outcome. When it comes to food choices, actions speak louder than words.
By Jim Hanemaayer