WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. agriculture officials in the coming days will step up efforts to convince China to lift a ban on imports of U.S. poultry that was imposed at the start of the nation’s worst-ever outbreak of bird flu, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Reuters on Tuesday.
Vilsack plans to raise the issue at the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT), an annual forum to discuss trade and economic links, that runs from Nov. 21 to 23, in Guangzhou, China.
“It’s an opportunity for us to educate China and to hopefully over time see a relaxation of that ban,” Vilsack said in an interview.
Cases of bird flu in U.S. poultry earlier this year prompted China and South Korea to impose bans on U.S. poultry imports. Last year, the two countries accounted for about $428.5 million in export sales of U.S. poultry meat and products, according to U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) data.
However, no new U.S. cases of the flu have been detected since June 17 and some other countries that curbed trade because of the outbreak have eased restrictions.
The USDA wants China to limit imports only from states or regions in which poultry have been infected, as opposed to restricting trade nationwide.
“International rules suggest a regional approach would be appropriate,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack, who has previously asked China to ease its ban, said he did not expect it will be lifted at the JCCT. He declined to specify the timeline for any possible action by China, saying “it just depends on the circumstances.”
U.S. officials are worried bird flu will resurface this winter because wild ducks, which can spread the disease, will be migrating. A resurgence of the virus would likely renew trade restrictions.
Since December 2014, more than 48 million chickens and turkeys in the United States have been killed because of the disease. Egg prices reached all-time highs because of the losses.
During the lull in infections, the United States is negotiating with trading partners to impose softer restrictions in the event the virus returns, said James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council.
Sumner said he did not know when China will lift its ban but that he has been “hearing some very good vibes out of South Korea” about easing its restrictions.
On Tuesday, South Africa, which had been worried about bird flu infections in U.S. poultry, said that it signed an agreement to resume imports.
Reporting by Krista Hughes in Washington and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Tom Brown