China is technically open to U.S. rice now – the Chinese ban was lifted Friday - but trade can’t begin flowing yet thanks to bureaucratic steps that remain unfinished, according to U.S. industry officials.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reached out to U.S. rice mills Monday morning and told them that the agency is working on clearing up the remaining steps in the process that is needed to clear the way for actual sales, sources involved with the call tell Agri-Pulse.

U.S. mills have not been individually cleared under the sanitary and phytosanitary protocol signed by the U.S. and China in 2017, but APHIS officials told millers the agency is working to clear all 34 that have applied for approval to export to China.

There is no set timeline for the approvals, but millers were told APHIS hopes to complete the process “soon,” sources said.

The fact that Chinese customs officials announced U.S. rice is no longer banned is a major step towards new sales for U.S. farmers and millers, says USA Rice Federation spokesman Mike Klein, but there is more to be done.

“It’s a good step they took, but it hasn’t translated into any sales yet,” Klein said. “We’re excited about it. We’re not jumping up and down yet.”

For any sales to happen, China needs to issue phytosanitary certificates to rice mills showing that they meet Chinese approval to supply rice to the country. That process is under way now.

Thirty-four U.S. mills have applied for approval to export to the country. The USA Rice Federation expects they will all be been cleared, but that has not been confirmed yet.

A delegation from China’s State Market Regulatory Administration (SMRA) inspected 10 U.S. mills in Texas, Arkansas, California and Louisiana last June. Klein said it was USA Rice’s understanding that if all 10 mills passed inspection, then the Chinese would accept assurances from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that all of the mills would be approved.

“I don’t know where we are with that because the list (of mills) hasn’t been made public yet – we haven’t seen a list of who’s in or who’s out,” Klein said. “Our position is that it was all or nothing.”

Those mill approvals are necessary for the rice tendering process, he said. A Chinese buyer cannot close a purchase from a seller that was not approved.

Still, the Chinese announcement Friday that it implemented the sanitary and phytosanitary protocol is a major success for the U.S. rice sector, which has been fighting for access to the Chinese market for more than a decade.

China consumes about 144 million tons of rice every year and it is the world’s largest rice importing country. China imports about 5 million tons of rice, according to USDA data.

"As with all our dealings with China, the devil is in the details, and we have many questions, including when the first sales will be made, but this is definitely good news for our producers and millers as we enter the New Year," said USA Rice Chair Charley Mathews.

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