WASHINGTON, June 8, 2016 - It's been nearly a year and a half since China initiated a total ban on chicken and eggs from the U.S., following the detection of avian influenza, and there are still no signs that Chinese officials are willing to consider a more limited, regional approach to the prohibition, says USDA Chief Veterinary Officer Jack Shere.

Shere’s predecessor, John Clifford, traveled to China several times to negotiate a lifting of the ban, and Shere is considering a trip soon, but the talks between the countries appear deadlocked, he said in an exclusive interview with Agri-Pulse.

That trip won’t happen, Shere said, unless he sees a real opportunity for progress. “There has to be a decision between the two governments that they’re willing to move forward, otherwise it’s a non-productive trip,” Shere said. “So we’ve got to get indications from them that they’re willing to talk.”

The stakes are high: In 2014, China imported $390 million worth of poultry and eggs, according to USDA data.

China can be a difficult country to work with, compared to other U.S. trading partners, he said. Many countries, like Canada and Mexico, agreed to regional bans on U.S. poultry and eggs after the H5N2 and H5N8 strains of avian influenza, carried by wild birds, made their way along the Mississippi and Pacific flyways in 2015. The virus spread through 15 states and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service helped coordinate the euthanizing of tens of millions of layer hens and turkeys.

But after all that, the U.S. still managed to keep 84 percent of its poultry export markets intact, Shere said, as most countries chose not to put blanket bans on U.S. poultry, as China did. In addition, the major broiler-producing states in the Eastern U.S. were unaffected by the spread of the virus.

“Now countries are becoming more accepting of regionalization and only setting bans on the areas that are infected…., eventually removing those bans based on proof that the virus is no longer there,” he said.

“China is different. It is less likely to move on the basis of what the (World Organization for Animal Health) says. They form their own opinions. They work within their own government to decide.”

There’s another issue beyond just proving to China that U.S. broilers and laying hens are not infected with bird flu – China still doesn’t have USDA approval to export its own chicken to the U.S., Shere said.

“We’ve been working with China and Korea and other countries that have banned our poultry (due to avian influenza) ... to explain to them what we’ve done to eradicate it and to get them to accept our poultry again,” Shere said. “But many times … these things are tied up in other political issues.”

When it comes to negotiating with China and its ban on U.S. chicken and beef – China has banned U.S. beef since the country’s first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) was discovered here in 2003 – “it’s ‘you give me X and I’ll give you Y’ and that’s where the negotiations go,” Shere said. “We would like them to be based solely on science, of course.”

Still, there may be a breakthrough soon on U.S. approval of Chinese chicken.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced in March that it had approved China's food safety system and several chicken slaughter and processing plants. After a number of audits over several years, FSIS has declared that at least some Chinese chicken is fit to be exported to the U.S. The next step will be for FSIS to issue a proposed federal rule to allow that to happen.

A U.S. government official who asked not to be named said the proposed rule is in its final stage of development and should be published soon.


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