BEIJING (Reuters) – China will trial in France a new approach to responding to animal disease outbreaks that is less disruptive to trade, and which could be extended across the European Union, European commissioner Phil Hogan said on Thursday.

Hogan, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development and incoming Trade Commissioner, told Reuters that China’s customs authorities had accepted the principle of ‘regionalization’ for the first time during a meeting on Thursday.

Under the regionalization concept, only a certain area inside the country where an outbreak has occurred is restricted from exporting the livestock products.

China, the world’s top importer of pork and fastest growing buyer of beef, typically bans imports of animal products from entire countries, even if they have only reported a single outbreak of disease. The bans can take years to be lifted, causing significant damage to trade.

“This is progress, and they’re prepared to do a pilot program with France in relation to putting this into effect in 2020,” Hogan said.

The EU and member states including France have lobbied China for years to recognize regionalization as a way of reducing the impact on trade of disease outbreaks in livestock.

The principle is applied in the EU for outbreaks of contagious diseases like African swine fever and avian influenza but has never been recognized by China.

“What the program will say is, if there’s a small outbreak of a particular disease in France, it won’t mean that the entire country is banned from sending those products into China,” added Hogan.

A list of agreements reached by France and China during President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China this week included a plan for the two countries to carry out technical exchanges with a view to reaching an agreement in 2020 on zoning to combat African swine fever.

The deadly pig disease, currently ravaging herds across Asia, was also reported in Belgium last year, coming very close to the French border.

Fresh outbreaks in new countries threaten a booming trade in pork exports to China, where meat imports are expected to rise by around 2 million tonnes, or about 35%, this year because of a huge shortfall in production.

If the project with France goes well, it could be rolled out to all member states, said Hogan.

“It sets the scene for the concept of regionalization to be applicable all over the European Union for any future disease problems,” he said.

Asked if the EU would recognize the concept in China too, Hogan said: “We’re open to the concept of reciprocity on everything, including on animal disease.”

(Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Giles Elgood)