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Coming soon maybe to a grocery store near you – chicken from China.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled recently that poultry processed in China can now be sold in the United States. But first the birds must be born and raised in the U.S., Canada or Chile. Then they’re exported to China before being shipped back to the Americas.

Food safety experts worry about the quality of chicken processed in a country notorious for avian influenza and food-borne illnesses. And they predict that China will eventually seek to broaden the export rules to allow chickens born and raised in China.

Poultry officials in Georgia – the nation’s top broiler producer – say food-safety fears are overblown. They don’t expect a deluge of imported Chinese chickens.

Access to the American market is the quid pro quo, though, for a hoped-for explosion of exports to China.

“Believe it or not, it’s something we’ve been pushing for as an industry for several years,” said Jim Sumner, president of the Stone Mountain, Ga.-based USA Poultry and Egg Export Council. China “is one of our largest export markets and has the potential, by far, to be our largest market, and we don’t want to risk upsetting them.”

Chinese food exports to the United States – $3.3 billion worth in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – grow by about 10 percent annually and are expected to remain on that trajectory for the next decade. Major exports to the U.S. include vegetables, fruits, grains, meat, fish and fruit juices.

Food & Water Watch, a Washington consumer advocacy group, earlier this year listed five questionable food imports from China: tilapia, cod, apple juice, processed mushrooms and garlic.