Russia has announced that it has set annual meat import quotas, in a move that is expected to hit the EU’s livestock industry hard.

A Russian government spokesman said Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has signed resolutions setting annual import quotas for poultry meat, beef and pork.

“The quota resolutions were signed last week and they will soon be published,” the spokesman told Reuters. A spokesman for Russia’s Economic Development and Trade Ministry said the quotas would come into effect in April.

The introduction of meat import quotas is seen by many as an attempt by Russia to force the EU to allow more Russian grain exports into the bloc.

The agriculture council lobby group in Denmark drew a link between the meat quotas and a new grain import system introduced late last year to curb the influx of cheap wheat from Ukraine and Russia.

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“It looks as if the artillery is targeted directly against the EU and the grains problems,” it said in a newsletter.

Russia is the destination for up to half of the EU’s beef exports, a third of its poultry sales and a quarter of its pork.

Konstantin Bogdanov, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry spokesman, said he had not seen the final version of the resolutions, but the latest available draft showed quotas would be set for three years.

He said the draft set the poultry quota at 1.05 million tonnes per year. Beef imports will be limited at 420,000 tonnes per year and pork imports at 450,000 tonnes per year, he said. As the new regime will start only in April, different quota figures have been set for 2003.

A European Commission spokesman said the full facts were still unclear and the EU executive wanted talks with Moscow.

“We will be asking for consultations in the framework of the EU-Russia agreement,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters. “We are seriously concerned because of our major interests in these markets.”

“It is clear that the quotas are to apply to all suppliers so we do not see them as a reaction to our measures on cereals.”

Russia buys around a quarter of European pork exports, with Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands the top four sellers. Denmark accounted for the majority share of the EU’s overall exports of 1.262 million tonnes in 2001, of which 315,000 tonnes went to Russia, reported Reuters.