June 2, 2017 / 7:44 PM / 2 months ago

China plans U.S. visits, spurring hopes for more poultry trading

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An employee works at a poultry farm on the outskirts of Shanghai, China, April 16, 2013.Aly Song/File Photo

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chinese agricultural delegations are set to visit the United States in the coming months, raising hopes that Beijing may lift a ban on U.S. poultry imports.

A decision by Beijing to cancel the ban would benefit U.S. farmers nervous about trade policies under U.S. President Donald Trump, who pulled out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership in January and pledged to renegotiate NAFTA.

China has blocked American poultry imports since the United States suffered its worst-ever outbreak of avian flu in poultry in 2015, frustrating U.S. producers who have detected only a handful of highly lethal cases of the virus in birds since last year.

The ban cut off a major market for U.S. chicken companies including Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N) and Sanderson Farms Inc (SAFM.O), particularly for chicken feet, which Americans generally do not eat.

Next month, representatives of China's agriculture ministry and animal quarantine and inspection service will visit U.S. poultry facilities and learn how producers fight avian flu, Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, a trade group, said this week.

It will be the first such visit since China imposed its ban and precede the arrival of another Chinese delegation in September, he said.

"We're hoping that after the visit that they lift the ban entirely," Sumner said about the September trip.

In 2014, U.S. poultry exports to China totalled $315.4 million, including $94.6 million worth of feet, according to the export council.

Resuming U.S. exports could support demand for feed, benefiting U.S. grain farmers who have suffered from falling incomes due to massive global harvests.

Tyson Foods, the biggest U.S. chicken company, said it had spoken with representatives from China about visiting its operations and hopes the ban is lifted soon.

Last month, the farm sector cheered as China agreed to resume U.S. beef imports, after blocking most shipments since 2003. At the same time, the United States said it would issue a proposed rule to allow cooked Chinese chicken to enter U.S. markets.

Sanderson Farms, the third-largest U.S. poultry producer, doubts Beijing will lift its U.S. poultry ban until Washington fully approves cooked Chinese chicken imports, Chief Financial Officer Mike Cockrell said. Before the ban, Sanderson earned about $4.3 million of operating income per month by selling chicken feet to China.

"For the first time really since January 2015, when they put the avian influenza ban in place, we're starting to see movement," Cockrell said.

Editing by Matthew Lewis

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