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Why Did Russia's Food Ban Spare Peanuts? Why Did Russia's Food Ban Spare Peanuts?

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Why Did Russia's Food Ban Spare Peanuts?

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

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(Fernando Sanchez Cortes/Shutterstock)

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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