WASHINGTON, June 1, 2016 - China is on track for another record-breaking year of beef imports and U.S. exporters remained sidelined because of a 14-year ban. But U.S. Meat Export Federation officials say there is hope that will soon change.

Renewed focus by the Obama administration, including a new task force set up by the USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative, is showing signs of progress in getting the ban lifted, USMEF President and CEO Philip Seng said in a recent interview with reporters.

“The current administration is very, very motivated to try to conclude some type of agreement with China for beef access,” Seng said. “They’re very focused on this and I think that this resolve to get this market open will translate into some kind of opening.”

U.S. government officials confirmed the existence of the USDA-USTR task force, but did not disclose any specifics about the group’s actions. On the USDA side, the team includes officials from the Foreign Agricultural Service, Agricultural Marketing Service, Food Safety and Inspection Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“USDA is actively working to open the Chinese market,” a USDA spokeswoman said. China suspended imports from the U.S. in 2003, shortly after the U.S. found its first case of mad cow disease.

Meanwhile, China’s direct beef imports surged to $662.5 million in the first quarter of the year, up 85 percent from the year-earlier quarter, said Joel Haggard, USMEF’s senior vice president for the Asia-Pacific region. The country also imports vast amounts of beef and other commodities via “gray channels,” through Hong Kong and across other borders, often without official records.

“Overall beef consumption in China is increasing,” Haggard said. “It’s a market we just can’t tolerate to be out of.”

More evidence backing up that assertion came in May when FAS economists raised their forecast for China’s beef imports this year to 750,000 tons, a 50,000-ton increase from an earlier prediction. That’s up from 663,000 tons in 2015 and 417,000 tons in 2014.

Meanwhile, as China’s imports continue to grow, countries like Australia, Uruguay, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina and Canada continue to ship more beef to the world’s most populous country.

But there’s one factor at work that is giving the U.S. beef negotiations some added impetus: The USDA is moving closer to allowing China to export its chicken to the U.S.

China has long sought USDA approval to ship Chinese chicken to the U.S. Even though there is no official agreement for reciprocity, some U.S. industry officials believe that Chinese chicken acceptance will be a key factor in opening China to U.S. beef.

And that’s closer than ever after the FSIS announced in March that China’s food safety system and several chicken slaughter and processing plants passed the necessary audits for shipping product to the U.S. The next step will be for FSIS to issue a proposed federal rule to allow China to begin exporting.

That could go a long way towards thawing U.S.-China trade relations, said Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council.

“It could certainly contribute towards the improvement of overall relations because China has often cited this restriction on being able to export to the U.S. as part of the justification for its position on other issues such as beef exports to China,” Sumner told Agri-Pulse.


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