Local companies could be looking at a boost in profits if poultry trade with China is reopened in the Trump administration deal, something for which local politicians have pushed.
The Chinese government put a ban on poultry product imports from the U.S. following a serious bird flu outbreak in 2015.
The outbreak caused close to 50 million birds to be put down, mostly across Midwestern states.
Bird flu outbreaks can cause cascading results from heavy losses of birds to a shutdown of international trade.
The 2015 outbreak did not spread to Delmarva poultry, but producers still experienced an impact on trade.
A number of countries banned all U.S. chicken during the outbreak. Those policies have long since been lifted — except in China.
"The U.S. food system is very very safe," said James Fisher, spokesperson for Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. "The incidence of avian influenza in the U.S. is lower than the incidence in China itself."
Delmarva senators have joined poultry industry representatives to push for the ban to be lifted in an trade deal with China that is currently under negotiation.
“Maryland’s poultry industry is crucial to our Eastern Shore economy and to the livelihoods of countless families in our state," Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wrote in astatement. "As a part of any new trade deal, this Administration must ensure that our farmers and producers get a fair shake."
The talks were supposed to be completed by early March. But negotiations stalled, only to resume recently.
They could include a range of issues, from tariffs to currency manipulation.
"We’re patiently waiting for the deal to be concluded," said Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council in Georgia. "I’m as optimistic as I have ever been — if not more."
Why the Chinese market is important
Even before the ban, the Chinese share of the U.S. poultry export market was relatively small. But the country bought a lot of chicken feet, called paws, which American consumers don't want.
"When China was going strong, basically every chicken company in the U.S. was shipping their paws there," Sumner said. "It really was a major economic benefit to all of those companies."
But in the U.S., those feet are typically sold to be used in fertilizer or pet food, said Sumner. That nets only a small fraction of the price.
Some other Asian countries do buy chicken paws from the U.S., including Hong Kong and Taiwan, however, the Chinese market is much larger.
About $22 million worth of chicken from Maryland processing plants was exported in 2018, said Fisher.
"But the export market is not nothing," said Fisher. "Especially for parts of the chicken that American consumers are not really interested in ... having robust export markets helps producers."
Pressure from local politicians
In February, nine senators sent a letter to United States Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer urging a deal that included lifting the Chinese ban on U.S. poultry products.
Virginia, Delaware and Maryland senators signed on, along with those from other poultry-producing regions.
"For farmers in our states who depend on robust foreign trade, your negotiations with China represent an opportunity to reverse these market losses and reopen the Chinese market to U.S. poultry," they wrote in the letter.
Sussex County, Delaware, is No. 1 in production of broiler chickens in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Growers on the Eastern Shore raised 605 million chickens with a wholesale value of $3.4 billion in 2017, according to Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
“Any trade deal with China should be fair, reciprocal and secure farmers with open access to Chinese markets,” Cardin wrote in an email.
Sumner said he feels the ban is unreasonable and that the danger of bird flu in the United States is relatively low.
He viewed the ban as a protectionist move to raise prices in China's own poultry industry.
"It’s an eight letter word: politics. It’s all about politics," Sumner said.
He said the Trump administration's approach on Chinese trade has been a welcome change and he believes in the leadership.
"The more poultry we export, the more poultry we produce and the more we produce, the more corn and soybeans we will consume," Sumner said. "We are all in this thing together."