RICHMOND — China lifted its seven-year ban on Virginia poultry Monday, a move that the state’s last three governors had sought ever since an avian flu outbreak at a single farm cost commonwealth turkey and chicken farmers access to the fast-growing Chinese market.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced China’s decision to lift the ban, saying that it could boost the state’s poultry exports by $20 million or more a year.
China imposed the ban in 2007 after turkeys at a farm in Virginia tested positive for avian flu. Virginia officials have been working since then to convince China that the case was isolated and that the “low pathogenic” strain discovered did not pose a risk to humans or poultry. The effort started with then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and continued with his successor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), before concluding under McAuliffe.
McDonnell directly pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping on the issue while on a trade mission to China last year, while McAuliffe has, since taking office in January, tapped his expansive Washington Rolodex to get top diplomatic, agriculture and trade figures on board.
Virginia’s congressional delegation has also been involved, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) raising the issue with Chinese officials on a trip to the country last week.
“This is outstanding news for Virginia’s poultry industry and the many related businesses that work to move product from our family farms into the global marketplace,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “Strengthening Virginia’s economy is my number one priority and the lifting of this ban is certainly good news for Virginia’s economy.”
Cantor said he used his recent trip to China to raise the issue with officials there.
“Exporting more Virginia poultry products means more economic growth and real jobs here at home,” he said.
In addition to helping the poultry industry, the largest slice of the state’s agriculture industry, the increased exports will support jobs at the Port of Virginia and in poultry processing and transportation, McAuliffe said.
The ban had excluded Virginia poultry farmers from one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing markets. China bought more than $416 million in U.S. poultry last year, most of it supplied by Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina.
Todd Haymore, Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, said Virginia stands to gain $20 million or more in annual exports.
“China is a good market for certain items that are not of high value in the domestic market but can be an important income generator for poultry processors,” he said. “Chicken feet and wing tips may be worth a few cents per pound in the domestic market but can sell for many times this amount in China.”
Haymore, who also worked under Kaine and McDonnell, said the ban lasted far longer than anyone had anticipated. Officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative also were deeply involved in trying to reverse it, as were American and Chinese diplomats.
At McDonnell’s invitation last year, a delegation from China traveled to Virginia to observe every step of poultry production, from farm to processing plant to port.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed during that time to allow a sample of the virus that had contaminated the Virginia flock to be sent for testing in China, so scientists there could confirm that the flu strain was as mild as U.S. officials had maintained.
McAuliffe picked up on that effort once he took office, tapping the deep connections to Washington he has as a former Democratic National Committee chairman.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former Democratic governor of Iowa, met with McAuliffe and Haymore to discuss the ban. So did U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. A month ago, McAuliffe and Haymore had a conference call with Max Baucus as the former Democratic senator from Montana was heading off to China to begin his new job as ambassador.
“The governor’s personal and professional relationships with Secretary Vilsack, Ambassador Froman, Ambassador Baucus — there’s no question those relationships were helpful,” Haymore said. “We were having a conference call on a Sunday afternoon right before Ambassador Baucus was leaving for Beijing to formally assume his post.”