U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has requested consultations with India under WTO dispute settlement provisions on India’s prohibition of imports of U.S. poultry meat and chicken eggs.  India claims the trade ban prevents transmission of avian influenza, but USTR Kirk said they have provided no scientific evidence consistent with international standards on avian influenza control. Consultations are the first step in the WTO dispute settlement process. If the consultations fail to resolve the issue within 60 days, the U.S. can request a dispute settlement panel.

The WTO’s Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures recognizes WTO members’ rights to adopt regulations to protect human, animal, and plant life or health, but also requires members to ensure regulations are not simply protectionism.  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “Over the last few years, the United States has repeatedly asked India to justify its claim that a ban on poultry products from the United States is necessary. However, to date, India has not provided valid, scientifically-based justification for the import restrictions.”

According to estimates by the Foreign Agricultural Service of USDA for 2012, India is expected to be the sixth largest young chicken meat producer globally at 2.8 million metric tons (MMT), but far behind the U.S. at 16.6 MMT, China at 13.8 MMT and Brazil at 13.6 MMT.  India neither imports nor exports significant amounts of chicken meat. Production is expected to grow rapidly in coming years.  According to the U.S. Agricultural Attaché in India, the layer industry is growing as consumers want higher-quality, lower-cost protein.  Production is expected to grow about 6 percent in 2012, with consumption to increase to 51 eggs per person.

Since 2007, India has formally banned imports of poultry products from the U.S. to prevent outbreaks of avian influenza, even though the United States has not had an outbreak of high pathogenic avian influenza since 2004.  India claims that low pathogenic avian influenza could mutate into highly pathogenic strains.  The U.S. does have low pathogenic avian influenza.

A report by Bridges Weekly Trade News Digest clarified that issue.  “Countries have the right to impose certain restrictions,” said Alex Thiermann, President of the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) Code Commission. “However”, he added, “the code very clearly says that low pathogenic influenza allows for trade.”  Thiermann told Bridges that, because low pathogenic forms of the virus can mutate into highly pathogenic forms, “you have to wait a certain number of days’ before importing poultry meat from a flock of birds that has had a low pathogenic strain of avian influenza.  This is because low pathogenic avian influenza is a weak virus that disappears after a short period of time,” he said.

Restricting imports of U.S. poultry products has not eliminated India’s problem with high pathogenic avian influenza.  The U.S. Attaché reported on November 30 of last year that the country had four cases in 2011, two on government-run farms and two in backyard lots.  As of March 14, the Attaché reported India has had six findings of highly pathogenic avian influenza in poultry in 2012.  None of the outbreaks have been in major poultry production areas, but some have been close, causing concern to both government and industry officials. Bangladesh is believed to be the source of some of the outbreaks.  Cases have also been identified in wild birds.