* U.S. says actions 'science-based,' in line with WTO
* Argentina counters its products are of high quality
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Aug 22 (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday defended its longtime bans on beef and lemon imports from Argentina after the South American country threatened to challenge them at the World Trade Organization.
The sharp defense came amid escalating tensions over Argentina's own import policies.
"All U.S. measures relating to imports of Argentine products, including lemons and beef, are science-based and consistent with WTO requirements," said Nkenge Harmon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office.
On Tuesday the United States and Japan challenged Argentine government regulations that require prior approval of nearly all foreign purchases, saying they violate WTO rules.
Argentina's Foreign Ministry did not comment directly on the U.S. and Japanese action but said it would lodge its own complaint at the WTO over Washington's policies that hamper lemon and fresh beef imports.
"The United States is surprised and disappointed at Argentina's reaction," Harmon said in an emailed statement.
"It appears to be part of a disturbing trend in which countries engaged in actions that are inconsistent with their WTO obligations retaliate with counter complaints rather than fix the underlying problem raised in the complaint," she said.
U.S. trade officials still have not received official word from Argentina that it plans to challenge the bans, so only know what they have read in news reports, she said.
The United States bans imports of beef and beef products from Argentina to block foot-and-mouth disease from that country's cattle herd, U.S. agriculture officials said.
It bans Argentine lemons because of concern about two plant diseases, citrus variegated chlorosis and citrus greening, that could hurt U.S. lemon production.
Matthew Herrick, a spokesman for the U.S. Agriculture Department, said USDA's regulatory authorities "will continue to work with their Argentine counterparts to address scientific issues related to specific pests and diseases of concern."
In a press release on Tuesday, Argentina complained that the U.S. market has been closed to Argentine lemons since 2001, even though other countries accept the fruit.
"Argentine citrus is exported to destinations with very high health standards such as the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, which do not question the excellent quality of Argentine produce," the Argentine government said.
It said U.S. restrictions on Argentine beef because of foot-and-mouth disease were "unjustified" and had cost Argentine ranchers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales.
"Although the International Health Organization has recognized the southern Patagonia region as free of foot-and-mouth disease, without vaccinations, since 2003, the U.S. government ... has delayed recognition of this situation, and has unreasonably delayed the authorization for the importation of fresh beef," the Argentine government said.
Harmon said the "the fundamental openness" of the U.S. market was reflected in U.S. trade data with Argentina.
Last year U.S. imports of Argentine farm products topped $1.64 billion, while U.S. agricultural exports to Argentina totaled $154 million, Harmon said.
However, Argentina is one of the few countries with which the United States enjoys an overall trade surplus.
Last year it exported $9.9 billion worth of goods to Argentina and imported $4.5 billion from that country.