WASHINGTON – It’s probably a necessary step in the general scheme of improving relations with one of the United States’ largest trading partners. But many observers may have wondered why the Bush administration didn’t achieve more than a perfunctory agreement in its talks with Chinese agricultural officials in Washington this week.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and Li Changjiang, China’s Minister for the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, announced Thursday they had agreed to establish a consultative mechanism on food safety and animal and plant health issues.

The signing came after three days of high-level talks between U.S. and Chinese officials in connection with the meeting of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade where the two nations discussed a wide range of economic and trade issues.

Representatives of farm organizations including the National Cotton Council and the American Soybean Association have complained that China has failed to address a number of their objections to new import rules regarding cotton and soybeans.

But those issues were not addressed in the joint announcement following the meetings.

“China is an increasingly important market for U.S. food and agricultural products,” said Secretary Veneman. “The value of agricultural exports to China has nearly tripled in the past two years. China now takes nearly 10 percent of total U.S. food and agricultural exports.”

Veneman said the agreement is the first step in a process that will strengthen technical cooperation and exchanges in the fields of food safety and animal and plant health. The United States and China will exchange information on laws and regulations and identify issues of mutual interest and work to address them. There will also be personnel exchanges at the technical level, seminars and training, and cooperative research on common problems.

“As members of the World Trade Organization, our two countries are committed to adhering to and promoting the WTO sanitary and phytosanitary agreement,” said Veneman. “As our agricultural trade continues to grow and thrive, we must make every effort to quickly identify and address differences to maintain trade.”

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