Indian Ban on Imports of US Poultry Sparks WTO Dispute

7 March 2012

Washington announced yesterday that it has initiated consultations with New Delhi at the WTO over India's prohibition on imports of US poultry, chicken eggs, and other agricultural products - the first stage in the global trade body's dispute settlement process.

India has banned US poultry and other farm goods for the last five years, supposedly to prevent avian influenza outbreaks in the country, said the US Trade Representative's office. However, Washington argues that there is no scientific evidence to justify the ban.

"India's ban on U.S. poultry is clearly a case of disguising trade restrictions by invoking unjustified animal health concerns," US Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a statement. "We are confident that the WTO will confirm that India's ban is unjustified."

A separate statement from US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack claimed that the United States had repeatedly sought scientific evidence for the import restrictions.

Vilsack said that the announcement that the US is seeking consultations under the WTO's dispute settlement process "demonstrates that the United States will help ensure that all of our trading partners play by the rules and uphold their WTO obligations."

In recent weeks, the US has repeatedly announced that it plans tough action in response to what it says are unfair practices among its trading partners. Last week, US President Barack Obama signed an executive order for the creation of a new agency for that purpose, in keeping with an earlier announcement made in his January State of the Union address (see Bridges Weekly, 29 February 2012).

There was no immediate reaction from the Indian government to the WTO complaint, sources told Bridges.

However, US industry groups welcomed the move. USA Poultry & Egg Export Council President, Jim Sumner, said in a statement that "India's posture is thinly guised protectionism."

A scientific basis for restricting trade?

In the past India has expressed concern that low pathogenic avian influenza could mutate into highly pathogenic strains, and argued that it is allowed to prohibit trade in poultry under the Terrestrial Animal Health Code of the World Organisation for Animal Health (known by its historical acronym, OIE).

The US disputes this assessment, arguing that international standards for avian influenza control only support the imposition of import bans in outbreaks of high pathogenic strains. Washington therefore claims that there is no basis for imposing an import ban, as only low pathogenic strains of avian influenza have been detected in the US since 2004.

"Countries have the right to impose certain restrictions," said Alex Thiermann, President of the OIE Code Commission. However, he added that "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.

The two sides will now have 60 days to reach an agreement; otherwise, the US can request a WTO panel to review the dispute.

ICTSD reporting.

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