WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2016 - China is once again saying it’s willing to lift its ban on U.S. beef, but American officials are taking a wait and see attitude, noting that the world’s largest country made the pledge a decade ago and never followed through.

U.S. government and industry officials, however, acknowledge the environment is different now. China’s beef demand has grown and the U.S. is in the final stages of allowing the importation of Chinese chicken, resolving a longstanding contentious issue between the two countries.  Still, as one former USDA official said, the devil may be in the details.

As of now, USDA officials tell Agri-Pulse, China has not officially divulged any of its regulatory demands for importing U.S. beef, which the Asian nation, and much of the rest of the world, banned after the U.S. discovered its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in 2003.

“They haven’t given us any protocols,” said one USDA official who asked not to be named because of the delicate nature of the ongoing negotiations. “We’re looking at nothing.”

Another USDA official said the Chinese recently wrapped up an inspection of U.S. beef production and said “the audit seemed to go OK,” adding, “We’re still waiting to see what they tell us and that’s where we are right now.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack welcomed China’s announcement last month that the country was ready to begin importing U.S. beef after a 13-year ban. But China made a similar announcement back in 2006. That declaration touched off rounds of negotiations, with John Clifford, USDA’s chief veterinarian at the time and the point man on all things BSE, being dispatched to Beijing to try to work out the details. Clifford and others, including then Farm and Foreign Agriculture Service Under Secretary J.B. Penn had been traveling regularly to Asia since the BSE discovery, working out deals to resume imports with Hong Kong, Taiwan and others, but not China.

The U.S. soon learned China was agreeing to only allow imports of boneless beef cuts under a bevy of restrictive terms, and the George W. Bush administration rejected the overture.

Mike Johanns, then the U.S. agriculture secretary, said at the time that China should be opening its market to all U.S. beef products, in accordance with the international standards established by the (World Organization for Animal Health). “We will not be satisfied until a full range of U.S. beef products are once again accepted into the Chinese market," he said.

USDA officials at the time complained that to adhere to the complex Chinese demands, the Agricultural Marketing Service would have had to create a whole new Beef Export Verification program with special guidelines.

This time around, Vilsack called the Chinese announcement “a critical first step to restore market access for U.S. beef and beef products,” but he also stressed that success would hinge on “further technical discussions on the specific conditions that will allow trade to resume.”

One good sign, a USDA official said, is that Chinese auditors mentioned that the country is willing this time to accept imports of bone-in cuts of beef.

Chase Adams, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said it was too early for celebration. “Our thought is, let’s see what the details are,” he said.

There are other reasons for optimism, several USDA officials said. First, the World Organization for Animal Health announced in 2013 that it was placing the U.S. into the “negligible,” or lowest risk category, for BSE. Back in 2006 when China first lifted its beef ban the U.S. fell into the higher “controlled” risk category.

Perhaps even more significant, USDA is in the final stage of clearing China to ship its chicken to the U.S. There has never been any official communication from China that the country wants its chicken cleared before it allows in U.S. beef, but government and industry officials have said for years that they suspected that was the case.

“I don’t think anyone thinks China is doing this out of the goodness of their heart, but poultry has certainly been their latest sticking point,” Adams said.

A team of FSIS auditors traveled to China last year to inspect and evaluate the country’s ability to safely slaughter poultry and came back with good news. In March, FSIS informed China that the country had passed the audit and said FSIS will “recommend moving forward with the rulemaking process for poultry slaughter system equivalence and the issuance of a proposed rule.” A USDA official said the department is on track to publish that proposed rule before the end of the year.


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