WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday began action at the World Trade Organization to open India's market for poultry meat and eggs, saying an Indian ban on U.S. imports intended to stop the spread of bird flu was not based on sound science.
"The United States is the world's leader in agricultural safety and we are confident that the WTO will confirm that India's ban is unjustified," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a statement on the U.S. request for consultations.
India's ban in the name of protecting local poultry producers from losses caused by avian influenza is "clearly a case of disguising trade restrictions by invoking unjustified animal health concerns," Kirk said.
The U.S. poultry industry welcomed the move, which they said could pry open a market for U.S. poultry exports conservatively valued at more than $300 million.
"In our view, India's posture is thinly guised protectionism," Jim Sumner, president of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Export Council, said in a statement.
"More than 100 countries ... enjoy chicken imported from the United States. As the middle class in India continues to expand, and the market moves more toward commercial poultry, the United States should be afforded the opportunity to compete fairly with our products in this growing market," Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, added.
U.S. officials said international scientific standards for controlling avian influenza do not support banning imports due to low pathogenic avian influenza, which is the only type detected in the United States since 2004.
"The United States has repeatedly asked India to justify its claim that a ban on poultry products from the United States is necessary. However, to date, India has not provided valid, scientifically-based justification for the import restrictions," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
The United States is the world's largest broiler meat producer and second largest exporter, behind Brazil.
India's broiler meat consumption has risen from 2.23 million metric tons in 2007 to a projected 2.75 million this year, according to a U.S. Agriculture Department report.
India is forecast to produce about 2.70 million metric tons of broiler meat this year, providing some opportunity for imports, the Agriculture Department report showed.
Consultations are the first step in the WTO dispute settlement process and parties are encouraged to agree to a solution at this stage. If the matter is not resolved through consultations, the United States may request the establishment of a WTO dispute settlement panel.
Litigation at the WTO can take one to two years to conclude.
Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman