The United States took the first step Tuesday toward formally challenging India’s longtime ban on U.S. poultry products before the World Trade Organization.

“Over the last few years, the United States has repeatedly asked India to justify its claim that a ban on poultry products from the United States is necessary,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement. “However, to date, India has not provided valid, scientifically-based justification for the import restrictions.”

India has kept U.S. poultry products out by banning all poultry from any country that has had an incident of avian influenza, including the low pathogenic variety, which includes the United States.

The World Organization for Animal Health standard says that such restrictions are only necessary when dealing with highly pathogenic avian influenza, which has been responsible for human disease outbreaks in Asia and Europe. Tuesday the United States announced trade ambassador Ron Kirk is seeking consultations with India under the dispute settlement provisions of the WTO.

The policy has angered the U.S. poultry producers because it blocks them from what some estimate would be a more than $300 million export opportunity.

In a letter sent to Kirk in January, more than 40 House lawmakers urged immediate action on the issue, arguing that their constituent poultry processors are “being prevented from realizing signifiant opportunities in the market with great potential.” The letter pointed to the U.S. poultry industry’s “very effective” measures in place to prevent, control, and eradicate avian influenza.

“In our view, India’s posture is thinly guised protectionism,” said USA Poultry & Egg Export Council (USAPEEC) president Jim Sumner on Tuesday. “The Indian economy is growing rapidly, as is its standard of living and its consumption of poultry. It is projected that India will soon be the world’s most populous country, and its people must have continued access to an ample supply of affordable protein.”

National Chicken Council president Mike Brown touted the fact that more than 100 countries import poultry from the United States, adding: “U.S. chicken companies and the farm families that grow chickens are committed to the responsible production of food that is safe, affordable and abundant for consumers in the United States and around the world.”

Secretary Vilsack recently touched on the rising number of animal health and food safety trade issues facing U.S. agricultural exports during a USDA appropriations hearing.

“In the last 10 years, the number of sanitary and phytosanitary barriers we have had to deal with has increased from roughly 650 to close to 1,500 last year,” he said. “The reality is that when you’re the number one country in terms of agriculture and agricultural production and exports, countries find a lot of different ways to make things difficult for you.””

Countries that belong to the World Trade Organization manage such disagreements under the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, often called the SPS Agreement. This framework is meant to help iron out trade disputes based on food safety and animal or plant health issues.