MOSCOW - Russian authorities launched nationwide inspections of McDonald's restaurants Thursday after shutting several wildly-popular Moscow locations on apparent government orders aimed at striking back against biting Western sanctions.
It was the latest salvo in Russia's escalating and economically-bruising trade war with Europe and the United States over the conflict in Ukraine that has already sent East-West relations into what some have dubbed a "new Cold War".
Russia has a long history of using food safety concerns as a political weapon against unfriendly countries. It has used alleged consumer safety concerns to ban Ukrainian products and halted imports of Georgian wide months before going to war with the Caucausus nation in 2008.
Washington and its EU allies have unleashed restrictions against broad sections of Russia's economy in response to the Kremlin's perceived attempts to split Ukraine in two as punishment for its decision to anchor its future with the West. Russia responded by banning nearly all US and European food products and threatening even more drastic measures that could effectively cut off the country from Western goods for the first time since the Soviet era.
The most emotive attack on the United States came Wednesday when Moscow health authorities locked up a McDonald's restaurant that had opened its doors in the final years of communism and because a symbol of Russia's gradual acceptance of the West. The Moscow authorities also ordered three other central McDonald's locations to close immediately. One of them continued operations Thursday without an explanation.
But the federal office of the Rospotrebnadzor consumer safety watchdog took the campaign to a new level by ordering checks into McDonald's locations stretching from the European portion of Russia across the Ural Mountains and into Siberia. "We have a letter - it is an order from the federal (Rospotrebnadzor) service that is based on a government decree," an official at the consumer watchdog's Ivanovo district office in central Russia told the Interfax news agency. He said results of the checks would be made public within 20 days.
Moscow's Kommersant business daily suggested that the authorities had no immediate complaints against Burger King because the Russian operations of the number two US fast food chain is nearly half-owned by the investment arm of the state bank VTB. The paper cited a senior source as saying that the McDonald's checks were being conducted on government orders that apparently had little relation to health or consumer safety concerns.
"That is why the (Moscow) restaurants were immediately closed, even though when scheduled (safety) checks are conducted, first a written warning is usually issued," the unnamed source in one of Russia's federal agencies told the paper. McDonald's itself has said little about the inspections and is promising to cooperate with the authorities.
The company - which has strived to support the local economy and relies almost exclusively on Russian-produced food - said in a statement it was studying the complaints and that "McDonald's top priority is to provide safe and quality products."