LONDON - In what would be a major boost for the U.S. poultry industry, the European Union appears close to lifting its 11-year-old ban on imports of American poultry.
Some trade experts say an announcement could come as early as today after a meeting of the Transatlantic Economic Council in Brussels, Belgium.
Others say it's more likely an announcement will come next month at a formal U.S.-EU summit in Slovenia.
The expected decision would open up a market worth at least $200 million, and perhaps much more, to U.S. poultry farmers.
That could be a boon to Maryland, where fresh poultry has become the biggest segment of the farm economy, with annual sales worth at least a half-billion dollars.
The issue of the ban will be high on today's agenda at the Transatlantic Economic Council, formed last year to facilitate trade and investment between the United States and the EU.
The EU banned imports of American poultry in April 1997 because U.S. producers use a low-concentration chlorine wash to reduce harmful pathogens such as salmonella from chicken and turkey carcasses.
The practice is not permitted by the EU food safety regime, which considers chlorine a carcinogen.
But the Financial Times reported yesterday that some European poultry producers are using an identical chlorine-washing process on chicken they export. For example, the newspaper quoted a senior European Commission official as saying that the French use chlorine washing for exports to Saudi Arabia.
Those on both sides of the Atlantic say the political will to end the dispute seems to be growing.
The European Commission "will find a solution, and the only solution is to lift the ban," Guenter Verheugen, the EU commissioner in charge of industry policy, said at a news conference last week. Verheugen is also co-chair of the economic council.
Verheugen has warned that failure to do so could hamper progress on broader issues disputed by the United States and the EU such as patents, biofuels and financial services.
"What we hear from the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] is very encouraging and things are moving at a pretty good pace," said Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation in Washington. "We are hopeful of a resolution this week, but we realize it may take just a bit longer to resolve this."
Representatives of the U.S. poultry industry say they believe the ban definitely will be lifted before a U.S.-EU summit meeting scheduled in Slovenia next month that will be attended by President Bush.
"The United States and the EU have gone around and around on a technical level on finding acceptable alternatives to chlorine," said Toby Moore, a spokesman for the Poultry and Egg Export Council in Stone Mountain, Ga.
"The regulatory climate in the EU has become increasingly, well, regulatory, making it difficult in some cases for U.S. products to comply," he said. "But the two sides have been getting closer to an agreement."
The National Chicken Council in Washington said last week that a failure to resolve the poultry issue would demonstrate that the EU is seeking a scientific impossibility: demanding conclusive evidence that there is absolutely no risk to food safety and the environment with respect to chlorine treatment of U.S. poultry.
"No scientific study on any issue has ever been able to prove an absolute-zero risk," said Bill Roenigk, senior vice president and chief economist at the council. "The real-world evidence is that billions of people around the world have consumed wholesome, safe U.S. poultry for decades without any harmful effects from the theoretical risks raised by the EU."
When the ban was first enacted, the EU was a $50 million market. But the bloc has grown to 27 member countries.
U.S. chicken exports to Romania totaled $63 million in 2005, but they stopped immediately when that country joined the EU this year.
Europe appeared poised to scrap the ban once before, in 2005, when the European Food Safety Agency said that the use of chlorine did not pose a risk to consumer health.
But the resumption of imports has been delayed in the face of opposition from European poultry farmers and from EU member countries.
France, for example, remains vehemently opposed to lifting the ban.