Chicken feet exports to China, which at one point brought in $278 million for the United States, has become a rather facetious-sounding sparring ground for very serious trade conflicts between the two countries. Yes, chicken feet in China--a poultry appendage that has seemingly no value here in the U.S. but is in demand in China-- are the reason the United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk is currently pleading for World Trade Organization intervention between the world's two largest economies. From personal experience, you can find those poultry extremities in dim sum restaurants where they're deep-fried to the color of burnt caramel and drenched in a sweet-spicy-salty sauce.  You'll also find lots of people making faces when presented with a plateful of those claws. Mostly unwanted in the U.S., the export of our excess chicken feet (377,805 metric tons) to China is a business which garnered nearly $278 million in 2009. But since then, it's been a different story. The Washington Post reports:

China began imposing stiff duties — including a tax of more than 100 percent — on those American chicken parts, The move was in response to a request by Chinese chicken farmers and processors, who claimed the U.S. government was unfairly subsidizing the American poultry industry through low feed prices and then selling the 'chicken paws,' as they’re known in industry parlance, into China at below-market cost ...

Since the imposition of the tariffs, American chicken parts exported to China have collapsed 90 percent, and the industry has lost an estimated $1 billion in exports to China, according to the council and other analyses. The blow comes as poultry farmers and manufacturers say they are already feeling financially squeezed between high grain prices and the depressed American economy that has seen lost restaurant sales and lower prices for breast meat

But the fight isn't about American or Chinese chicken feet or their superiority, even though the story does dive into a sinister sounding chicken foot black market that's been created in the chicken claw vacuum. The Washington Post points to President Obama's 2009 decision to stick 35% tariffs on Chinese tires. Look further, as Reuters did this past week, and you'll find spats and an almost-three-year back and forth of tariff wars including complaints to the WTO about credit cards (electronic payments), wind power (China was subsidizing firms that were using domestic equipment), steel wheels, copper pipes, currency, and solar panels (U.S. makers felt like they were being undercut). Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, argued last year that chicken farmers were the innocent victims this political fight. "Unfortunately, U.S. poultry is a big target, and we have simply gotten caught in the cross fire," Sumner said at the time.

This year, coincidentally marks the 10th anniversary of China's induction to the WTO.  And this year Sumner's upped up his tone. "Our industry cannot allow something as unjust as this to stand because of the precedent it sets for other countries," said Sumner to The Washington Post.  Which coupled with Kirk's plea to the WTO and China's denials, make it seem like we're not really talking about "chicken feet".