(Adds confirmations from tax service, Cherkizovo, Rusagro)
By Polina Devitt and Polina Ivanova
MOSCOW, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Meat producer Cherkizovo and farming conglomerate Rusagro were among agricultural firms across Russia targeted in a sweeping investigation into suspected tax evasion on Wednesday.
The Tax Service said so far five potential breaches had been uncovered in inspections carried out with the Federal Security Service (FSB) at agricultural holdings across 13 regions.
The inspections targeted suspected evasion of value-added tax (VAT) in trade between suppliers and domestic grain buyers, the Tax Service said.
Export grain was not mentioned in the statement. Russia, the world’s largest wheat exporter, has already exported 33 million of 42 million tonnes of grain expected this season, the agriculture ministry reported on Monday.
Rusagro said tax authorities and the FSB had visited one of its plants.
Cherkizovo also said inspections were being made at its facilities.
“Cherkizovo Group confirms that law enforcement representatives are currently present at some of the company’s regional branches,” it said in a statement.
“Cherkizovo Group... always pays all of its taxes and levies in full and in a timely fashion,” it said.
The Tax Service said in a statement: “An assessment will be made about the degree to which the largest milling, livestock-raising and feed and grain processing plants, as well as other processing plants, have been involved in an illegal scheme to reduce their tax obligations.”
The 13 regions were checks were being carried out included Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tambov, Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, Voronezh, and Saratov, among others, the Interfax news agency reported.
It did not mention Russia’s top grain-producing regions of Krasnodar, Stavropol and Rostov.
In 2017, after a crackdown on tax evasion in the agriculture sector, authorities and grain exporters agreed that traders would avoid working with domestic firms suspected of failing to pay taxes.
Russia was losing an estimated 65 billion roubles ($990 million) a year in unpaid taxes. The Tax Service said on Wednesday that the 2017 agreement had brought 57.4 billion roubles into state coffers between the second half of 2017 and first half of 2018.
Tax authorities said grain was being bought and sold via a chain of transactions in which the VAT liability was left with a small trading companies which then ceased operations.
$1 = 65.6590 roubles Reporting by Polina Devitt and Polina Ivanova; additional reporting by Olga Popova; editing by Louise Heavens and Jason Neely