UPDATE 2-China lifts three-year embargo on Brazil beef imports

(Updates number of plants to be approved in June, adds potential sales value)

BRASILIA, May 19 (Reuters) - China has ended an embargo on Brazilian beef imports, Brazil’s agriculture ministry said on Tuesday, lifting a three-year old ban and opening the door to half a billion dollars of new sales.

Eight Brazilian beef processing plants and one poultry plant were approved to ship to China, the ministry said in a statement after Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed trade, finance and investment deals worth tens of billions of dollars.

Seventeen more processing plants are expected to get approval in June, when Brazilian Agriculture Minister Katia Abreu visits China. The 26 plants represent $520 million of potential sales to China, the ministry said.

Though other countries like Japan and South Korea have blocked Brazil’s fresh Brazilian beef exports since 2012 due to a mad cow disease scare, the World Animal Health Organization maintained Brazil’s status as a country with an insignificant risk of the disease.

Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter and China is its top trading partner. In 2014, Brazil exported $7.2 billion worth of beef.

Brazil’s agriculture ministry also expects the United States to approve imports of fresh Brazilian beef for the first time by late June, when President Dilma Rousseff visits Washington.

In total, 29 Brazilian chicken plants and seven pork plants are already exporting to China. (Reporting by Marcela Ayres; Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by W Simon and Marguerita Choy)