Four McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow closed by Russia’s food safety agency

Business leaders say move is a response to Western sanctions over Ukraine

A man looks through the glass door at the entrance of a closed branch of McDonald’s in Moscow today. Russia’s consumer watchdog ordered four McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow to be temporarily closed, alleging the US fast food chain had violated sanitary rules. The news raised fears of a fresh round of sanctions against western businesses. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

A man looks through the glass door at the entrance of a closed branch of McDonald’s in Moscow today. Russia’s consumer watchdog ordered four McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow to be temporarily closed, alleging the US fast food chain had violated sanitary rules. The news raised fears of a fresh round of sanctions against western businesses. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

Thu, Aug 21, 2014, 21:00

Russia said today it was investigating dozens of McDonald’s restaurants, in what many business people said was retaliation for Western sanctions over Ukraine that they fear could spread to other symbols of Western capitalism.

Russia’s food safety watchdog said it was looking at possible breaches of sanitary rules at McDonald’s, but many in the business community said it was a reflection of the deterioration in relations between Russia and the West over Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country are fighting against government forces.

“Obviously, it’s driven by the political issues surrounding Ukraine,” said Alexis Rodzianko, president and chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. “The question on my mind is: is this going to be a knock on the door, or is this going to be the beginning of a campaign?”

Russia earlier this month slapped bans on western food imports after Washington and Brussels imposed economic sanctions in response to Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its backing of the separatists.

Growing frustration

In a sign of growing frustration at the threat to trade, several mid-tier Russian businessmen signed off on a letter by British entrepreneur Richard Branson calling on politicians to stop the conflict.

“We, as business leaders from Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the world, urge our governments to work together to ensure we do not regress into the Cold War misery of the past,” the letter said.

McDonald’s, which opened its first store in Russia in the dying days of the Soviet Union in 1990, is a very visible symbol of American capitalism in Russia, where it now has 438 branches.

The food safety watchdog ordered the closure of four of its restaurants in Moscow on yesterday, including that first Russian branch, which is the busiest in the firm’s global network.

The watchdog said it was starting unscheduled checks in several Russian regions, including Sverdlovsk and Tatarstan in the Urals, the central Voronezh region and the region around the capital.

“We are aware of what is going on. We have always been and are now open to any checks,” a McDonald’s Russia spokeswoman said.

So far no other prominent western brand has reported coming under extra scrutiny from the Russian authorities, though there were Russian media reports that Jack Daniel’s was being investigated. The whiskey producer said it would challenge any accusations about its quality.