The US and South African governments agreed that negotiations on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) were 95% complete, Faizel Ismail, SA’s special envoy on Agoa issues, said on Monday.

Mr Ismail stressed that it was in both parties’ interests that the talks continued until a final deal was struck.

He expected the outstanding issues to be finalised by the end of the week, following tomorrow’s meeting between veterinarians.

While SA is hoping that it will be granted "extra time" by the US to conclude a deal, it is not clear whether the US administration is willing to allow this.

Pending the release of a presidential proclamation announcing the suspension of SA’s agricultural benefits under Agoa, the office of the US Trade Representative had no comment on SA’s hopes for an extension. A spokesman for the US body would only reiterate that as of the deadline set by US President Barack Obama on November 5, "outstanding issues have not been resolved".

Mr Obama had said the suspension would kick in should no deal to allow US beef, poultry and pork into SA be reached before December 31.

Mr Ismail stressed in an interview after a media briefing by Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana that the outstanding issues were relatively minor and should not be allowed to thwart a deal. "Both parties have a deep interest in finalising the last 5%. It is the last part of the marathon and you can’t give up. Both have too much to lose."

Mr Davies noted that the US government had not yet "blown the whistle" and that the talks, which were now in "extra time", would continue whether or not it was blown. He said he had been informed that if the US did suspend Agoa access on specific agricultural products — possibly citrus, macadamia nuts or wine — this could easily be lifted if agreement were reached later.

Mr Davies said that the US embassy in Pretoria agreed that "considerable and discernable" progress had been made in the talks. The rules for the administration of the annual quota for 65,000 tonnes of bone-in chicken portions to be allowed into SA free of antidumping duties had been gazetted and a protocol for attending to avian flu that embodied a regional approach had been concluded.

Pork health certificates had been negotiated and only required signature by both parties.

A proposal had been presented by SA to the US that cattle from US neighbouring states should be quarantined in the US for 90 days before being slaughtered for beef exports to SA. A US response was awaited.

The main outstanding issue is the acceptable level of salmonella in chicken and which procedures should be followed if it were detected by SA’s health inspectors at ports of entry.

Department of Trade and Industry director-general Lionel October said the matter related not only to a question of acceptable levels of salmonella contamination, but also the existence of two different systems of control.

SA inspected meat imports at ports of entry and released them only after testing. The US operated in terms of a recall system in which products were released into the market and subjected to quick recall from retailers if they were found to be unacceptable.

"We cannot apply a new system just for the US. We have a system that works for us," he said.

Dr Motsoaledi said a "very delicate and complex" balance had to be achieved between trade and health issues.

With Simon Barber