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Moscow retaliates against sanctions by aiming a shot at the golden arches

Published:Wednesday | July 30, 2014 | 7:00 AM

By Courtney Weaver in Moscow

As the west unveils further sanctions against Russia, Moscow is hitting back where it hurts: right in the cheeseburgers, milkshakes and Filet-o-Fish.

A regional branch of Russia's consumer protection agency yesterday filed a lawsuit against McDonald's in a Moscow court, alleging that certain of the chain's products - including its chicken burger, Caesar wrap and ice cream parfait - did not meet Russian health standards.

The Veliky Novgorod branch of Rospotrebnadzor said extensive laboratory tests had shown many McDonald's products were rife with "discrepancies in quality and safety" and did not follow "the physical-chemical and microbiological parameters required by [Russian] law".

It had found evidence of E.coli in McDonald's Caesar wraps and vegetable salads, it alleged, and accused the United States (US) group of understating the calorie-count in its burgers and milkshakes.

Over the past decade, Russia has finessed the art of adopting ultra-stringent health and safety standards just when geopolitical tensions are reaching their peak. It banned Latvian sprats during a territorial dispute with Riga; Georgian wine in the run up to its 2008 war with Tbilisi; and Polish pork when Warsaw advocated tougher sanctions against Russia this year.

Now there is a new target: Ukraine and its allies. Russia announced it would ban all dairy imports from Ukraine from next week after Rospotrebnadzor warned of their "risky" and worsening qualities.

In a statement, McDonald's said it had received no complaints from Rospotrebnadzor and knew nothing about the lawsuit. "For the 25 years that the company has been working on the Russian market, McDonald's main priority has been to provide quality and safe products to our customers."

McDonald's has long been held up as one of the multinational success stories in Russia. After 14 years of negotiations with the Soviet government, it opened its flagship outlet on Moscow's Pushkin Square in 1990, and was thronged by a crowd of 30,000 on its first day.

Now tensions over Ukraine are overshadowing the company's business in Russia. The EU yesterday said it had readied a fresh tranche of sanctions against Russian businesses.

While the Kremlin has not imposed sanctions against US groups, nationalist politicians and businessmen have taken matters into their own hand.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the far-right Liberal-Democratic party, has called for a ban on McDonald's and Pepsi. A pro-Kremlin youth group launched an "eat Russian" viral campaign this week, with activists advocating Twitter users choose borscht and kvass, a Russian soft drink, over burgers and cola.

(c) 2014 The Financial Times Limited