WASHINGTON, July 5, 2017 - It’s been more than two years since China slapped a ban on all U.S. poultry, but the ban could be coming to an end soon as USDA and an industry group here work with the Chinese to overhaul the way the country reacts to outbreaks of bird flu.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who was in Beijing and Shanghai this past weekend, made a point to press Chinese officials on the country’s poultry ban, but much of the effort to restore that market is happening in the U.S., according to government and industry officials.

A delegation of Chinese officials is in the U.S. conducting an audit of how the U.S. deals with bird flu and, according to government and industry sources, representatives from both countries will meet in September to discuss the poultry trade.

Officials from China’s agriculture ministry and Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) arrived in Delaware on Tuesday, where they began a tour which will include U.S. production facilities and scientific labs to learn more about how the U.S. handles bird flu outbreaks.

The tour starts with a three-day crash course on bird flu and U.S. programs to detect and contain the virus. It’s being conducted by the University of Delaware, renowned for its Avian Biosciences Center, and USDA and poultry industry officials are hoping it will help persuade the Chinese to lift their ban on U.S. poultry.

“The real goal is to help them understand what the U.S. techniques are so that they feel comfortable that our procedures are well-based in science,” said Eric Benson, a professor in the university’s Animal and Food Science Department.

The U.S. was hit badly by outbreaks of bird flu in 2015 when producers -- mostly egg-laying operations and turkey farms in the Midwest -- were forced to kill tens of millions of birds to help stop the spread of the virus.

The outbreaks caused a swift international reaction. The U.S. exports about $5 billion worth of chicken, turkey and eggs yearly and most U.S. trading partners were quick to put bans in place. While most limited their bans to regions where outbreaks occurred, some countries like China and South Korea stopped all U.S. poultry imports.

Many importing countries adhere to the practice of regionalization, when it comes to reacting to bird flu outbreaks. They ban poultry from counties, regions or states where the outbreaks occurred. It’s a system that the U.S. wants China to adopt.

Those blanket bans really hurt the U.S. The outbreaks in 2015 had almost no direct impact on broiler farms in states like Delaware and Georgia, but the Chinese ban stopped all exports from those states anyway.

The U.S. exported $153 million worth of broiler meat to China in 2014, the year before the Chinese ban went into place, according to USDA data.

“Our goal is really to teach them everything about the U.S. methodology and best practices …” said the University of Delaware’s Benson. “When the regionalization discussion happens … it will allow them to understand what we do and that will lead them to say: ‘Sure, we’ll regionalize to a state or county level.’”

After Delaware, the Chinese delegation will then head to Washington, D.C., for meetings with federal officials, said Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council (USAPEEC). From there it’s on to Georgia and Arkansas and then to Iowa, where the USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) are located.

USAPEEC is taking a major role in the delegation’s visit, arranging travel and many of the stops on the itinerary, Sumner told Agri-Pulse.

“Based on what they’ve learned during their visit, it’s going to help them finalize the regionalization proposal, which we expect to have presented in September at the bilateral,” Sumner said. “We are looking for the ban on poultry that has been in place since January 2015 to soon be lifted and hoping that regionalization will be put in place so this situation doesn't again occur.”

The bilateral meeting, according to government sources, will take place in Nashville, Tenn.