WASHINGTON, June 30, 2017 – USDA chief Sonny Perdue is in China primarily to celebrate the resumption of beef trade, but he’s also using the occasion to press officials there on the country’s need to reform its biotech approval process and to lift its bans on U.S. rice and poultry.

While beef has grabbed most of the spotlight – Perdue, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Craig Uden, and Luan Richeng, representing state-owned Chinese importer COFCO, made a show of carving up imported U.S. beef – the USDA secretary has been holding multiple meetings with the Chinese in Beijing and Shanghai. Han Changfu, China’s agriculture minister, Li Yuanping, the vice minister of China’s Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), and Vice Premier Wang Yang were just some of the high-ranking Chinese officials Perdue has been meeting during his trip.

“The secretary had wide-ranging discussions with the Chinese, using the success of getting U.S. beef back in the market as a springboard,” said a USDA official traveling with Perdue. “He raised the issue of market access for American products such as poultry and rice. And he also urged China to address systemic issues with approval of biotech products, which we know are safe. The secretary made clear what American desires are, and pointed to beef as proof that progress is possible.”

U.S. companies including Tyson and Greater Omaha Packing are already exporting beef to China, and poultry farmers are hoping it won’t be long before chicken will be shipped too. China has maintained a blanket ban on U.S. poultry since 2014 because of bird flu outbreaks.

“We are pleased to know that Secretary Perdue and his staff are fully engaged in our number-one issue of reopening the China market for US poultry,” Jim Sumner, president of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Export Council (USAPEEC), told Agri-Pulse

The trickiest issue may turn out to be getting China to reform its biotech approval process. Unlike most countries, China will not start its approval process until after another country – like the U.S. – finishes its review. That can add years to approval for companies hoping to sell their seeds. The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully for years to get China to make changes.

But Michel Demaré, vice chairman of Syngenta, told Agri-Pulse in a recent interview that the company is optimistic that China will make reforms now that it has been acquired by ChemChina.

“We are certainly encouraging that,” Demaré said. “We think that makes sense for the global system. Having invested a significant amount of money in Syngenta, I think they now have skin in the game that they didn’t have before to improve their regulatory process for all. And we hope that happens.”

China said that it would approve eight outstanding biotech seed traits in the so-called “100-day plan” that the U.S. and China agreed to after President Donald Trump and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping met in April. So far China has approved two.

The U.S. biotech industry is pushing for China to approved the remaining six, one industry representative said, but the long-term and most important goal is a reform of how it conducts the approvals.

As to rice, the U.S. and Chinese finished working out all of the sanitary and phytosanitary issues that would allow the U.S. to export to China about a year ago, and both sides signed off on a deal, but the Chinese held back on ratifying it.

China imports millions of tons of rice a year and purchases are increasing. The latest USDA forecast shows China importing 5 million tons in the 2016-17 marketing year, up from 4.4 million tons in 2015-16. The country agreed to take in at least 2.7 million tons of U.S. rice each year as part of the deal it struck when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, but there has been no trade because of China’s refusal to approve protocols.