WASHINGTON (AP) -- Chinese officials have agreed to lift the ban on U.S. pork imports they imposed earlier this year out of fear of swine flu.
The announcement, made on Thursday, is a major boost to the beleaguered U.S. pork industry, which had already been suffering from a downturn when China announced the ban in May 2009.
No date has been set for lifting the ban, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hailed it as a breakthrough nonetheless.
"China's intent to remove its H1N1-related ban on U.S. pork marks an important step forward in cooperation between the countries on agriculture issues," Vilsack said in a statement.
U.S. officials have tried to debunk the notion that the new H1N1 flu, also known as swine flu, can be spread by eating pork products, and Thursday's agreement is a sign of some success. China's agriculture minister and commerce minister said after meetings with Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk that the decision was based on a scientific analysis.
"Since this a new disease it took time to understand it," Sun Zhengcai, China's agriculture minister said.
Sun said he hoped that the United States would follow Chinese requirements to safely resume its exports. The ban had closed one of the most promising markets for U.S. pork products and was costing the industry millions of dollars a week.
In 2008, China was the fastest growing market for U.S. pork exports, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Thursday's announcement could also ease some trade tensions which have been percolating with China, and Vilsack said the decision to lift the ban is an important move forward for both nations.
"Two-way trade of agricultural, fish and forest products between the U.S. and China has grown in recent years ... opening increasingly important connections that can benefit farmers, ranchers and consumers in both countries," he said.