China Principal kisses pig
The Russian market previously imported 25% of all EU pork. Creative Commons

The European Union (EU) is to haul Russia in front of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as it seeks to have a ban on European pork imports overturned.

The embargo on pork exports came into effect in January in response to an outbreak of swine flu in Lithuania and Poland and is thought to have cost European pork exporters more than €580m (£463m, $794m) to date.

In both countries a number of wild boar were found to be infected with the virus, which has already been detected in the creatures within Russia's borders.

Given that the WTO typically takes more than a year to return a verdict in such cases, the row could end up costing the EU billions, with Russia previously importing about 25% of all European pork.

"Russia's import restrictions on European pork are clearly disproportionate, discriminatory and not based on science," said Karel De Gucht, the EU's trade commissioner.

He said that Russia was flouting the rules of international trade and that "Europe has no choice but to request the establishment of a panel at the WTO".

Russia has been exploring alternative sources of pork, as trade relations between Moscow and Brussels reached an all-time low on the back of the crisis in Ukraine.

In April, a spokesperson for the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance (Rosselkhoznadzor), said: "We have been made an offer from the Chinese side, but we are still considering it. A delegation of Russian, Kazakh and Belarussian inspectors is going to visit China to find out if the quality of the meat is good enough and meets our criteria."

The EU's subsequent sanctioning of Russia has angered officials in the Russian government and the rhetoric in the pork row has stepped up in the interim.

Russia's Permanent Representative to the EU Vladimir Chizhov has previously said that the whole of Europe should be "quarantined" in response to the swine flu outbreak

This marks the fifth time Russia and the EU have brought trade disputes to the WTO in the two years since Russia assumed full membership of the multilateral organisation.

In January, Russia filed its first WTO dispute claim against the EU, protesting against anti-dumping duties which Brussels had introduced. Brussels had alleged that Russian exports of steel products and aluminium nitrate were in contravention of international trade regulations.