U.S. should give Chinese chicken a chance: meat group

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. meat sector on Tuesday urged Congress to lift a ban that effectively prevents Chinese poultry imports in order to avoid retaliation on their own exports to China.

U.S. law allows any of the other 152 countries that belong to the World Trade Organization to be able to apply to export meat to the United States, and it is unfair that China has been singled out, a coalition of meat companies and trade groups said in a testimony to a House committee that has championed the ban.

“We will not be able to avoid a serious trade confrontation with China if Congress does not reconsider” the measure, trade lawyer Kevin Brosch said, speaking for the coalition in remarks prepared for the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee.

China has launched a WTO complaint about the ban, and trade groups said China recently stopped issuing import permits for U.S. chicken in retaliation, threatening the largest market for U.S. poultry, worth almost $700 million per year.

The U.S. Agriculture Department has strict food safety standards for all meat, whether home-grown or imported, and should be allowed to evaluate the safety of China’s poultry, Brosch said.

“We do not prejudge the outcome of that process and we respectfully suggest that this committee should not, either,” Brosch said in his prepared remarks.

The coalition includes the biggest U.S. meat companies -- Tyson Foods Inc, JBS SA, Cargill Inc, Seaboard Corp, Sanderson Farms Inc, Pilgrim’s Pride Corp, Smithfield Foods Inc, and Hormel Foods Corp -- as well as seed company Monsanto Co, privately held companies and a raft of trade associations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The chicken ban is one of several prickly trade issues between China and the United States, which are engaged in two days of talks covering topics ranging from the economic downturn to climate change.

More than two years ago, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service had been set to consider whether China’s poultry plant standards were equivalent to those governing the U.S. system, the first step to allowing imports of poultry.

But Congress blocked the move, forbidding the USDA from spending money on the initiative in its annual budget bill because of worries about China’s food safety standards.

The U.S. House has voted to extend the ban for another year. Rosa DeLauro, the Democrat who heads the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, has said she remains concerned about whether imports would be safe.

“We need to tread carefully,” DeLauro told the hearing, noting she may hold more hearings into the issue.

A consumer watchdog group said current U.S. policy has allowed trade interests to trump public health concerns.

Instead of declaring foreign food safety systems as equivalent to U.S. systems, the USDA needs to reform its approval process and do its own monitoring of foreign plants, said Lori Wallach of Public Citizen.

“The case of China is perhaps the poster child for the inherent limitations of the equivalence concept,” Wallach said in prepared testimony.

“It is impossible for the U.S. government to shift responsibility for U.S. consumers’ safety into a government that has shown repeatedly that it will not even provide basic information about problems,” she said.

The Senate has not yet passed its version of the annual department budget, but has proposed special inspections and audits that would allow for Chinese poultry imports.

Editing by Marguerita Choy