As world trade ministers gather this week in New Delhi, India, to negotiate, they hope, a conclusion to the Doha Round of World Trade Organization talks, the U.S. meat industry’s relationship with the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, who is the official representative of the U.S. government at the talks, is crucial.

Guiding that relationship from the industry side is the U.S. Meat Export Federation. "I would characterize it as a back-and-forth relationship," Thad Lively, senior vice president at USMEF, told "What I mean is there’s a lot of communication. During trade negotiations, the contact can be frequent, sometimes many times a day."

However, a complicating factor this year is that while Ron Kirk was named early by the Obama Administration as USTR, the Administration has not yet named nor had confirmed an agricultural ambassador within the USTR office. The person holding that post – right now the job’s duties are being performed by a career USTR negotiator – is the chief negotiator for all of U.S. agriculture, including meat and poultry. "We work closely together. In fact, USTR has a whole agricultural staff," emphasized Lively. "Agriculture is critically important in world trade."

In fact, USDA reported this week that in 2010, U.S. agricultural exports, including meat and poultry, will have a value of US$97 billion – but what makes that figure especially noteworthy, and thus makes current trade negotiations so important, is that it is down 15 percent from fiscal 2008.

The fact that the talks are being held in India is also significant, because it gives official recognition of the key roles the huge yet still emerging economies of India and China, plus Southeast Asia, will play in the global economy of the future. According to the New York Times, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s trade commissioner, said that India’s hosting of the talks is "sending a very strong signal internally and externally" of that country’s commitment to trade.

Lively said the talks in New Delhi are unlikely to get into the details of trade situations and concerns presently on the meat industry’s table, such as negotiations to further open the Japanese market to U.S. beef, to improve exports to South Korea, and to make sure pending free trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia include meat-favorable terms. "But agriculture on the whole is critical to wrapping up the Doha Round," he said. "They came close to a deal a year ago. My sense is that for some of the countries now involved in the talks, it’s a matter of summoning the political will to finish the agreement. And as always, they will be looking to the U.S. for leadership."