Jim Sumner

Jim Sumner

By Jim Sumner

Special to Poultry Times

STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — They say patience is a virtue.

If that old saying is true, the U.S. poultry export industry is truly virtuous, indeed!

Fortunately, another well-worn phrase also may be accurate. That is, good things come to those who wait.

In our case, we speak, of course, about China. After nearly five long years, our once-major trading partner recently lifted its ban on imports of U.S. poultry. The now-reopened market had been closed to us since the Chinese imposed a ban on U.S. imports in the wake of the detection of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the Pacific Northwest in 2015.

The severity of the ban imposed by China was unreasonable in its duration. All other countries that invoked bans on U.S. poultry imports at that time gradually dropped them once the situation was controlled and the problem eliminated.

China did not, however. In trade policy matters, it’s not always the facts that matter most. Sometimes, it’s politics. That was the case here.

Make no mistake, the loss of the China cost our industry plenty. Before the ban was imposed, it was one of our top markets. In 2008, for example, we shipped more than $700 million worth of poultry there.

Efforts to reopen the market never wavered, however. U.S. government officials have worked hard, particularly recently under U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, to make it happen.

It was no easy task. Several times we thought we almost had a deal. But then we did not. And this has been our industry’s top goal for many years, so our disappointments were considerable.

There wasn’t just the ban to contend with, either. The matter was further complicated when China levied unfair anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties against U.S. chicken imports. Those were finally dropped last year. But we still had the ban to overcome.

Why did things ultimately change?

China wanted access to the U.S. market for fully cooked chicken that comes from slaughterhouses in China and is processed in China. Previously, only fully cooked chicken from slaughterhouses in other countries that had been U.S.-approved could be processed in China and shipped to the U.S. Now, under a new agreement, China can ship product from its slaughterhouses if its facilities meet U.S. standards.

Also, China is facing a meat protein shortage, a result of its African swine fever crisis which has spread rapidly and widely and devastated its pork industry. China has had to turn to imports of other meat proteins as a replacement, and U.S. poultry is perfectly situated to fill that bill.

As far as imports of Chinese cooked poultry into the U.S., we don’t anticipate this being much of an issue. For the immediate future, China does not have the product to export due to the ASF situation. Longer term, its industry is relatively inefficient and not price competitive with ours. Also, we would expect that retailers here, reflecting their customers’ preferences, would choose U.S. poultry.

Getting word recently that China had finally opened was something we all welcomed and reveled in. We estimate that the market could be worth $1 billion a year in exports of chicken paws alone. Paws are little in demand here in the U.S., and fetch only a small price, with most of them going for pet food or rendering. In China, though, they are a bit of a delicacy and command a much higher price. Beyond paws, there could be another $1 billion a year in other chicken products, turkey, and duck. You can see why the news of this agreement made for an early Happy Thanksgiving for us.

Of course, resuming exports to China isn’t something that just happens overnight, even if some companies do want to start shipping immediately — not after so many years of being out of the market. There are still logistical details to deal with and a few issues to be resolved. There is the matter of tariffs on U.S. poultry exports, for one. But we hope that if the broader trade negotiations between our two countries succeed, those might be eliminated. Companies, for their part, will have to adjust and adapt to the USDA’s new PHIS (Public Health Information System) electronic export application and certification system which rolls out in late January

A little more patience, in other words, is required.

Still, this reopening of the China market has been a long time coming, and we are thankful it finally arrived. Besides being grateful to our government leaders and staff for their persistent efforts to bring this to fruition, we also are appreciative of our Chinese trading partners who stayed with us over these last several years, maintaining contact for when the day would come that the market would reopen.

It has, and now we know from experience that good things really can come to those who wait.

Jim Sumner is president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council with offices in Stone Mountain, Ga.

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