U.S. senators from poultry states are ramping up pressure on South Africa to stop imposing duties that have effectively blocked U.S. producers from a growing market.
The Senate Finance Committee this week passed a 10-year reauthorization of the African Growth and Opportunity Act – a trade agreement between the U.S. and sub-Saharan African countries – with an amendment designed to help open up the South African market to U.S. poultry producers.
The amendment by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., would require the United States to review South Africa's policies within 30 days of enacting the law. The AGOA reauthorization would allow the United States to suspend, limit or withdraw benefits to noncompliant countries. Current law provides only for complete termination of benefits, a rarely invoked option.
"I believe passionately in AGOA's value and support its long-term renewal, but I believe it unfair and inappropriate that the country that benefits from the law the most – South Africa – continues to maintain unreasonable tariffs on American poultry," said Isakson, who co-chairs the Senate Chicken Caucus with Sen. Chris Coons., D-Del.
On Thursday, Isakson and Coons discussed other possible action against South Africa during a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on the law.
Coons said it's likely that when the Senate takes up the AGOA reauthorization, lawmakers will debate another measure that would limit the reauthorization to three years for South Africa.
"It is my real hope that we can resolve this in a positive way," Coons said. "But it is difficult for me to go home and say that I'm giving duty-free, quota-free access to the markets of the United States when there isn't a comparable, fair attitude on the part of the most developed economy in the market."
Isakson said Thursday that during the Finance Committee meeting he withdrew an amendment calling for a three-year reauthorization for South Africa because it's a "sledgehammer." South Africa wants at least a 15-year renewal.
"I don't like to use sledgehammers, but I also don't think the South Africans should take the withdrawal of that amendment as any easing of our pressure to see to it that we have fair and equitable access to the markets of South Africa," Isakson said.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a Senate Finance Committee member, co-sponsored the Isakson amendment. Poultry is the top agriculture product in Delaware and Maryland.
Since 2000, the Republic of South Africa has subjected U.S. bone-in poultry to "anti-dumping" duties, penalties that countries impose on imports they believe are priced suspiciously low. Lack of access to the market has cost the U.S. industry millions of dollars.
South African officials have said their policy is consistent with World Trade Organization legal requirements and that U.S. and South African industry and government officials are discussing possible solutions.
A spokesman for the South African Department of Trade and Industry did not have an immediate response to Wednesday's committee vote.
National Chicken Council President Mike Brown praised the Isakson measure and said South Africa's "unfair and protectionist practices" must be addressed before Congress extends AGOA.
"It makes no sense for the United States to give special preferences to countries that treat our trade unfairly," Brown said.