DES MOINES — Bans on U.S. pork imports by China, Russia and more than 12 other counties remain in place and are puzzling to many U.S. government and industry officials. Some are now speculating the issue is more about market share than health concerns, according to The Associated Press.
Initiated in the wake of the novel H1N1flu outbreak, which many still erroneously refer to as the "swine flu" outbreak, the bans are estimated to cost the U.S. hog industry millions of dollars each week. Despite insistence by international health officials that the pork is safe and the country's hogs are not to blame for the epidemic — the bans continue.
"It's politics and not science," said John Lawrence, a professor and livestock economist at Iowa State University. "The product is safe. So why restrict imports?"
Reduced hog prices coinciding with the H1N1 flu outbreak from late April to late May cost U.S. hog producers about $81.5 million, said Steve Meyer, a livestock economist with the Paragon Economics, an Adel-based company that analyzes agricultural markets.
Approximately 20% of U.S. pork is exported, and China and Russia are among the biggest buyers. China bought nearly $700 million in U.S. pork last year, ranking it third behind Japan and Mexico. Russia, ranked fifth with $476 million, has begun allowing some U.S. pork imports but maintains bans on 10 states.
U.S. producers have had long-standing disagreements with China and Russia, said Dave Warner, a Washington-based spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. He believes both countries could be using the "swine flu" scare to restrict imports and give a boost to their domestic hog industry.
"Both Russia and China, and all of these countries, know that this was not a food-safety issue. So something else is going on there," Mr. Warner said. "It does seem like it's a kind of a convenient excuse."
Russia has held to its earlier policy of requiring personal inspections of U.S. packing plants and storage facilities. Through that process, Russia has banned imports with little explanation from 33 U.S. pork plants, representing up to 50% of the export capacity to Russia, Mr. Warner said. The Russian policy violates World Trade Organization rules, but Russia isn't a member of the organization.
"In the case of Russia, they'd like to become self-sufficient in pork and chicken at some point, and so they're using this as an excuse to protect their own industry," Mr. Meyer said.
Russian officials, however, claim the ban on imports of raw pork from some U.S. states was based solely on health concerns. China's Agriculture Ministry has not explained why the pork bans have not been lifted.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk recently sent a letter to countries with import restrictions, seeking an end to the ban. Other countries with bans on U.S. pork are Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, St. Lucia, Indonesia, Thailand, Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan, Macedonia, South Korea and Malaysia.