UPDATE 1-China to buy 5.5 mln T of US soybeans-USDA
* China intends to buy 5.5 million tonnes of U.S. soybeans
* Chinese importers could choose to back out of agreement
* Shipments are for 2010/11; current value is $3 billion (Recasts, updates with comment from industry, adds background)
WASHINGTON, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Chinese importers intend to buy more than 5.5 million tonnes of U.S. soybeans from seven U.S. companies, including Cargill, valued at nearly $3 billion, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department and industry officials.
The U.S. Soybean Export Council said the seven exporting companies -- Archer Daniels Midland Co (ADM.N), Bunge North America (BG.N), Cargill, Zennoh Grain Corp, Louis Dreyfus Corp, Columbia Grain Trading and Toepfer International -- signed purchase agreements with 10 Chinese companies.
Paul Burke, director of marketing and industry relations at the U.S. Soybean Export Council, said Chinese importers and processors notified the United States in September they were interested in purchasing soybeans.
He said the agreement amounts to an intention to purchase soybeans during the current 2010/11 marketing year, and Chinese importers could choose to back out of the agreement because they had not signed a contract.
"If the price went up to $16 the Chinese company could walk away," said Burke.
"I think the intentions are that they put in the quantities that they intend to purchase and the general timeframe but the negotiation of the price comes later," he said.
Chicago Board of Trade January soy SF1 was up 2-1/2 cents per bushel at $12.24 on Tuesday.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last year China was the second largest export market for U.S. agriculture, the largest for U.S. soybeans with sales of $9 billion in 2010. A USDA spokesman directed further questions on the deal to the industry.
"The U.S.-China trade relationship continues to flourish, thanks in large part to agriculture," said Vilsack.
U.S. farm exports to China have surged from $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2000 to $15 billion in 2010, the USDA noted.
Soybean exports are forecast for a record 1.57 billion bushels in 2010/11, due to high demand. China accounted for 70 percent of U.S. soybean exports since the Sept. 1 start of the marketing year.
"In the soy industry we look at the Chinese market as being very important," said Burke.
In late August, USDA said U.S. farm exports are forecast to leap 5 percent to $113 billion in fiscal year 2011, the second-largest on record. (Editing by David Gregorio)