WASHINGTON, July 20, 2017 -  China has signed off on the sanitary and phytosanitary protocols that will open up its market to U.S. rice, the USDA announced today.

“This is another great day for U.S. agriculture and, in particular, for our rice growers and millers, who can now look forward to gaining access to the Chinese market,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement, a day after the U.S. and China concluded their first Comprehensive Economic Dialogue meeting in Washington. “This market represents an exceptional opportunity today, with enormous potential for growth in the future.”

The U.S. and China finished working out all the sanitary and phytosanitary issues that would allow the U.S. to export rice to China about a year ago. Both sides signed off on the protocols, but then China mysteriously held back from ratifying them and offered no explanation as to why.

China consumes about 144 million tons of rice every year and it is the world’s largest rice importing country. U.S. farmers have been yearning to get a share of the country’s market for years. The latest forecast from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service 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 past refusal to approve the protocols.

"This is a tremendous leap towards selling U.S. rice in China," said USA Rice Federation Chairman Brian King.  The signing, he said, "caps a decade of effort by the rice industry and the U.S. government to open access to the world's largest rice importer.” 

Perdue and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang signed the protocols, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. can begin shipping rice immediately. Before that can happen, China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) – the country’s version of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – will have to complete audits of U.S. rice mills.

"We know China wants to send a team here to inspect mills and facilities certified to ship to China, and we are working with USDA to make that happen in the quickest and most efficient way,” said Carl Brothers, chairman of the USA Rice International Trade Policy Committee. 

Breaking into the Chinese market won’t be easy or quick, said USA Rice CEO Betsy Ward, but the country represents a massive opportunity for American rice farmers that are highly dependent on foreign sales.

USA Rice has been preparing for the opening of China’s market, said Chris Crutchfield, who is in charge of promoting sales to Asia for USA Rice.

"We have promotion programs up and running in China in anticipation of (the) signing and exports to come,” he said. “We'll tailor our promotion activities going forward to include large trade seminars here and in China to educate Chinese consumers about the types and qualities of U.S. rice.”