9 May, 2018
India had cited avian influenza concerns and had for years virtually banned poultry imports from the US, prompting it to move the WTO. Now India has having relaxed them in recent months but in keeping with its hardline stance on trade matters, the US continues to press for damages against India on poultry import curbs..
In 2015, the WTO ruled against India, saying that its curbs were disproportionate to the threat and constituted a non-tariff barrier. Since then, India has made two rounds of changes in its bird flu regulations, to bring them in line with WTO norms.
Now, US poultry imports have started to arrive, but the US is yet to withdraw its claim of $450 million in annual damages to its industry, made before the ‘retaliatory panel’ of the WTO.
Meanwhile, the WTO’s compliance panel is yet to rule on whether India’s amended regulations are acceptable. India erred in not entering into a ‘sequencing agreement’ with the US, which would have ensured that the ruling of the retaliatory panel shall not come into effect before that of the compliance panel. Even as the compliance panel’s rulings take time in coming, India should engage the US in an effort to get the case before the retaliatory panel withdrawn. The US, using all possible means to push exports, is merely pursuing a hard bargain.
Avian influenza concerns aside, US chicken leg imports are not without their phytosanitary problems. The US palate favors chicken breast, while the feet of the bird are exported to China where they find a ready market. Chicken legs are likely to have been frozen for months before they arrive here. Besides, the lower part of the bird is believed to contain high concentrations of antibiotics residue.
The FSSAI should satisfy itself that the levels of such residue as well as the time period for which the meat is in a frozen state are within limits prescribed by Indian rules. In July 2015, the FSSAI had said that it “will develop a procedure for inspection and monitoring of slaughtering/processing plants before grant of market access.” The order added that exporting countries would have to provide the prescribed certifications to India. However, India should improve its food standards to ensure compliance. It is not clear whether the use of cheap GM corn and soyabean as feed in the US can have health implications. The domestic poultry industry, which cannot import such feed, may demand a level playing field, which could snowball into a controversy.
Even if imports are likely to be cheap, it may not find many takers in a country where people largely prefer fresh meat. However, a growing number of urban Indians eat out in fast-food joints, which may use such imported chicken. Hence, a host of regulatory and policy issues need to be sorted out.