Why Did Russia’s Food Ban Spare Peanuts?

U.S. peanut-industry groups aren’t sure, but they’re also not complaining.

National Journal
Marina Koren
Aug. 13, 2014, 10:42 a.m.

Al­monds may have sur­passed pea­nuts in pop­ular­ity in the United States, but pea­nuts are in a pretty good place right now.

Pea­nuts, raw or pro­cessed, are not in­cluded in a re­cent Rus­si­an ban on food im­ports from coun­tries that have im­posed sanc­tions against it for the Ukraine crisis, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­ic­an Pea­nut Coun­cil. The of­fi­cial doc­u­ment an­noun­cing the ban in­cludes nu­mer­ic codes that cor­res­pond to af­fected com­mod­it­ies, such as meat, fish, and cheese. The code for tree nuts, such as al­monds, cashews, pecans and wal­nuts, is lis­ted; the code for pea­nuts””which are not nuts, but legumes””is not.

APC is wait­ing to hear wheth­er pea­nuts are in­deed not one of the items banned, which would come as a re­lief to U.S. pea­nut pro­du­cers. “APC is seek­ing to con­firm this with U.S. gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials at this time,” said APC Pres­id­ent Patrick Arch­er.

The U.S. Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment ac­know­ledged a re­quest for com­ment from Na­tion­al Journ­al but has not re­spon­ded.

So why did Rus­sia leave pea­nuts off the list? It may be be­cause Rus­sia, thanks to its cli­mate, can­not grow pea­nuts on its own, and de­pends en­tirely on im­ports to meet con­sumer de­mand. But Rus­sia can’t grow tree nuts, either, ex­cept for pine nuts. In any case, de­mand in Rus­sia is up for pea­nuts and all nuts. Dur­ing the first two months of this year, Rus­sia im­por­ted 70 per­cent more pea­nuts in volume than it did dur­ing the same time peri­od in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. For­eign Ag­ri­cul­ture Ser­vice.

The United States is the largest sup­pli­er of tree nuts to Rus­sia and the second largest for pea­nuts, be­hind Ar­gen­tina. In 2013, Rus­sia im­por­ted $32.6 mil­lion worth of shelled pea­nuts from the United States, com­pared with $5.2 mil­lion in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the For­eign Ag­ri­cul­ture Ser­vice. APC puts the total for 2013 lower, at $22 mil­lion.

Most of the im­por­ted pea­nuts go to Rus­si­an bak­ing and con­fec­tion­ery com­pan­ies, while the rest are sold in stores as roas­ted or salted. Rus­sia makes pea­nut but­ter, too, but it doesn’t taste quite like Amer­ic­an or European brands. Amer­ic­an-style pea­nut but­ter, such as Skippy, is found most of­ten in big Rus­si­an gro­cery stores and met­ro­pol­it­an areas. Any­where else, and get­ting “real” pea­nut but­ter is nearly im­possible, as some ex­pats have com­plained on their blogs here and here.

The U.S. ex­por­ted $1.1 mil­lion worth of pea­nut but­ter to Rus­sia in 2013, ac­cord­ing to APC. 

Pea­nut but­ter first reached Rus­sia in 1992, when the Na­tion­al Pea­nut Coun­cil of Amer­ica, now known as the Amer­ic­an Pea­nut Coun­cil, hos­ted a form­al tast­ing of a pea­nut-but­ter-and-jelly sand­wich for chil­dren in Mo­scow. Ce­lestine Bo­hlen ex­plained to The New York Times back then:

The mis­sion of Amer­ic­an pea­nut farm­ers, shellers and pro­du­cers here is double-edged. The del­eg­a­tion came here with enough pea­nut but­ter (30 tons) for 500,000 sand­wiches, which will be donated to needy chil­dren through the Mo­scow Chil­dren’s Fund. But they also brought an­oth­er one and a half tons to be tested at stores around Mo­scow as a tri­al bal­loon to see if Rus­sia could one day be­come a mar­ket for Amer­ica’s sur­plus pea­nuts.

The in­tro­duc­tion of pea­nut but­ter signaled a shift in U.S. as­sist­ance to Rus­sia. Right after the So­viet Uni­on col­lapsed, the first Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion sent chick­en and oth­er foods to the fin­an­cially strapped coun­try as aid. After a while, U.S. in­vestors star­ted of­fer­ing sup­port to build a mar­ket eco­nomy in­stead, one that they could be­ne­fit from.

At first, pea­nut but­ter was a tough sell for some Rus­si­ans. “We didn’t like it””not I, not my hus­band, not my chil­dren,” Tan­ya Shi­man told Mark White­house at The Mo­scow Times in 1997. “It sticks to the roof of your mouth.” Mar­ket re­search by U.S. com­pan­ies showed that Rus­si­ans ex­pec­ted pea­nut but­ter to be sweet, but found it to be too salty in­stead. But these days, pea­nut but­ter, while not as read­ily em­braced as oth­er Amer­ic­an fa­vor­ites like Coke, has be­come a treat for Rus­si­ans.

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