(Adds details from conference call, background on trade dispute)
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, March 2 (Reuters) - South Africa is allowing sales of American chicken, pork and beef products throughout the country, meeting benchmarks for resolving a 15-year trade dispute with the United States, Washington’s top trade official said on Wednesday.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said that if sustained, South African sales are a key step toward President Barack Obama lifting his threat of suspending South Africa’s benefits under a U.S.-Africa free trade deal.
The first shipments of U.S. chicken cleared South African customs over the weekend under an agreement signed in January, Froman said. The deal could increase U.S. poultry, beef and pork exports by $160 million a year, supporting tens of thousands of jobs in states such as Delaware and Georgia.
“We’re comfortable that South Africa has met the agreed-upon benchmarks,” Froman told reporters on a conference call. “We’re going to continue to monitor the situation as poultry, beef and pork make their way into the market. The president will make a determination on the revocation of his suspension order. We expect that decision to be forthcoming.”
South Africa had effectively prohibited imports of U.S. chicken for about 15 years over various sanitary restrictions, and had raised concerns about a major outbreak of avian flu in the United States that killed nearly 50 million birds last year.
U.S. officials had denied any health risks posed by American chicken and argued that South Africa’s restrictions on U.S. beef, pork and poultry imports violated terms of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a free trade deal aimed at boosting African exports to the United States.
Obama had threatened to revoke the duty-free status of South Africa exports under AGOA on March 15 until the dispute was resolved.
South African officials had estimated that exclusion from AGOA would impose additional costs of up to $7 million on the $176 million in agricultural products it sold the United States in 2014, including oranges, macadamia nuts and wine.
“This is a great day for the chicken farmers of America,” said U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat whose small state produces more than $4.6 billion worth of chicken per year, employing over 14,000 people. (Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Eric Beech and Dan Grebler)