DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Continued bans on U.S. pork imports by China, Russia and more than a dozen other counties have baffled government and industry officials, leading some to speculate that the issue is more about market share than health concerns.
The bans, instituted in the wake of the swine flu outbreak, cost the U.S. hog industry millions of dollars every week. And they continue despite insistence by international health officials that the pork is safe and the country's hogs are not to blame for the epidemic.
"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?"
From late April to late May, a reduction in hog prices that coincided with the swine flu outbreak cost U.S. producers about $81.5 million, said Steve Meyer, a livestock economist with the Paragon Economics, a company that analyzes agricultural markets.
About 20 percent of U.S. pork is exported, and China and Russia are among the biggest buyers. Last year, China bought nearly $700 million in U.S. pork, 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.
Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said U.S. producers have had long-standing disagreements with China and Russia. He believes the two 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," Warner said. "It does seem like it's a kind of a convenient excuse."
Before the latest import ban, China already refused to buy any U.S. pork from hogs given the drug ractopamine, designed to produce a leaner meat. Warner said the drug has been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and been OK'd by 26 other countries.
China has defended its tough measures as necessary to block swine flu from the world's most populous country. China has been accused in the past of not acting quickly enough to prevent the spread of diseases, such as during the global outbreak of SARS in 2003.
Russia also has held to an 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 percent of the export capacity to Russia, Warner said