WASHINGTON, Dec. 22, 2016 – It’s been three months since China announced that it would lift its 13-year ban on U.S. beef, but trade still hasn’t resumed and the delay is testing the patience of U.S. ranchers.

The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) sent a letter today to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, asking for an update on negotiations with China, but officials say it will probably be up to the Trump administration to finalize the deal.

“USCA respectfully requests an update on the status of those negotiations,” USCA says in the letter. “We understand that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s announcement was an important first step towards securing Chinese markets for U.S. beef; we’d like to see that dialogue continue until an agreement is reached for the exportation of all U.S. beef products.”

There is not much of a dialogue, sources say, and USDA officials confirmed for Agri-Pulse that China still has not transmitted a draft of the protocols that are needed before beef trade can resume. China suspended imports of U.S. beef following the discovery of a cow with mad cow disease in Washington state in 2003. Vilsack said in a recent interview that he was disappointed that China had not yet invited USDA officials to Beijing to start talks on the protocols.

“We haven’t heard from them,” Vilsack said in an interview earlier this month.

Kent Bacus, director of international trade for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said the group is very frustrated by the lack of progress.

“We were hopeful that we would see more progress – that we would see beef moving to China in the very near future, but unfortunately it just hasn’t happened,” Bacus said. “It’s going to continue to be a top priority for NCBA and the beef industry… We’re going to continue to push USDA and USTR no matter who is in charge of the White House. We’re going continue to push them to work closely with the Chinese to get that market opened as soon as possible.”

Some of the reticence on the part of the Chinese may have to do with USDA’s long delay in approving China to export its chicken to the U.S.

Officially, government and industry sources maintain that the two issues – allowing China to export chicken to the U.S. and China’s ban on U.S. beef – are separate, but privately they acknowledged that one will not likely happen without the other.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced in March that inspectors had approved China's food safety system and several chicken slaughter and processing plants. After a number of audits over several years, FSIS declared that at least some Chinese chicken is fit to be exported to the U.S.

The next step would be for FSIS to publish a proposed rule, and USDA officials earlier this year had predicted that would happen sometime in the summer.

USDA sources say the proposed rule is done and could be published in the Federal Register at any time after Vilsack signs off on it. Vilsack told Agri-Pulse that the proposed rule is not on his desk. Department officials say it has technically been designated as “under departmental review” and remains uncontested by agencies.

Whatever the delay is, cattle ranchers and the beef industry would like to see it end because they want to take advantage of the growing demand in China.

USCA, in the letter to Vilsack and Froman, stressed that by the end of this year China is expected to be consuming 24 percent of the beef produced globally. That will be up from 13 percent at the end of 2015.

That rising demand is now being met by countries like Australia, Uruguay, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina and Canada.

“As producers of the highest quality beef in the world, we are eager to begin exporting to a country with growing demand for meat products,” USCA said.


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