Just eight months ago, U.S. chicken farmers were celebrating the reopening of the Chinese market. Now they’re cheering the dizzying pace of sales that have pushed China to the number-one position in April and May in foreign markets, and the trade shows no sign of slowing down.

“We just finished our second month in a row that China was our number-one chicken export market,” USA Poultry and Egg Export Council President Jim Sumner told Agri-Pulse in an interview. “Two months in a row.”

And it's not just chicken paws — a product that is mostly unwanted in the U.S. but coveted in China — that are generating the hundreds of millions of dollars in new trade. U.S. producers have been pleasantly surprised by the rising demand for legs, wings, thighs and other cuts.

It was in the middle of November that China confirmed it had lifted its five-year ban on U.S. poultry — shortly after USDA announced it would allow imports of Chinese chicken — and American producers were already salivating at the chance to export their chicken paws. U.S. chicken producers have been offloading their paws for just pennies on the pound to renderers ever since China hit the U.S. with a blanket, nationwide ban in reaction to outbreaks of avian influenza.

The U.S. produces about 1.5 billion pounds of paws per year; U.S. renderers only pay about 5 cents per pound for the paws, but Chinese importers pay about 90 cents per pound.

And the sales are skyrocketing. 

In May alone, the U.S. sold 20,688 metric tons of chicken paws to China, about an 8% increase from April.

“The paws are not an essential food in China,” said Sumner. “They’re a luxury item that the people like. They can’t get the jumbo paws from any other country that produces them with the quality and the size that we do. They love our paws and they’re willing to pay a premium price.”

Beyond the paws, the Chinese are also buying other cuts and other types of poultry. Chinese importers are also snapping up U.S. turkey and duck at a quick pace, bringing a welcome new source of profit for farmers.

“The main thing we wanted to sell them was the paws, because we don’t have another market for that, but we have been pleasantly surprised in the last couple of months,” Sumner said. "We’ve shipped more of the other chicken parts than we have of the paws, which is an added bonus.”

The U.S. sold 58,200 metric tons of broiler meat to China in May, valued at $82 million. That brings sales for the first five months of the year to 157,917 tons, or $226 million.

“The total volume of broiler meat sent to China accounts for nearly 11% of all U.S. broiler exports in 2020 and highlights just how crucial that the opening of the market has been for the U.S. chicken industry, particularly since no exports were sent in all of 2019,” according to an internal report circulated recently to USAPEEC members.

Chinese imports of paws are expected to continue rising, but broiler shipments may fluctuate, depending on prices, the report added.

The data also means China has already become the second largest market in the world for U.S. broiler meat, putting it behind only Mexico, which shares a border with the U.S.

The large volumes are even more significant given that January was the first time U.S. chicken exports — mostly paws at first — began flowing back to China since the ban was enacted in 2015.

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Adding to the success for the U.S. poultry sector is China’s quick resumption of turkey imports. China was the second largest market for U.S. turkey before the 2015 ban and now the Chinese have already reclaimed that title in 2020, says Beth Breeding, a vice president with the National Turkey Federation.

China imported 1,878 metric tons of turkey in May, valued at about $3 million. That was a slight dip from sales in April, but the numbers are still very strong. The January-to-May total is 6,696 tons, or about $11 million worth of product, a strong indication that trade will be able to reach pre-ban levels, which tended to fluctuate sharply. China imported about $51 million worth of turkey in 2014, down from $71 million in 2013.

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