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A Light Sussex chicken is seen at True North Heritage Hatchery in Langley, B.C., on Monday December 15, 2014. Canada’s chicken farmers are pushing back against calls from TPP negotiators to open up the market to more foreign imports.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The growing prospect of a Pacific Rim trade deal that would grant foreign farmers greater access to Canadian consumers has sparked a debate about homegrown protectionism that has largely revolved around Canada's heavily sheltered dairy industry.

However, Canada's chicken farmers also benefit from steep tariff walls, and, like dairy farmers, their sector has been publicly targeted by the U.S. government's chief trade negotiator, Michael Froman, as a priority for U.S. interests at the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

Chicken farmers in recent months have campaigned to build public support for their industry, arguing it is good "Chickenomics" to keep the sector strong because it sustains 78,000 jobs and pays $1.9-billion in taxes. It is in the same homespun vein as dairy farmers' defensive "Milkle-down" campaign, which said the sheltered and centrally planned industry is worth preserving because benefits trickle down to Canadians.

The Chicken Farmers of Canada said it is unfair to label the sector closed to foreigners when imports comprise 16 to 18 per cent of the Canadian market.

Mike Dungate, executive director of the 2,700-farmer organization, said Canada should not have to open the domestic chicken market further in a Trans-Pacific deal that could come together in the next few months. "We already provide significant access."

More than 90 million kilograms of foreign chicken was brought into Canada in 2014 under trade arrangements with countries including the United States and Brazil. "This is not a closed market. It's managed trade," Mr. Dungate said. Another 100 million kilograms of foreign chicken is imported, processed and then exported.

Momentum appears to be building for a Trans-Pacific trade deal, which could cause grief for the Conservative government because the price of entry for Canada is expected to include more duty-free dairy and poultry imports from countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The United States announced late on Tuesday afternoon that trade minsters from the 12 countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks will gather in Maui, Hawaii, from July 28 to 31 for what experts say is a final push for a deal. Chief negotiators will begin work in Hawaii on July 24.

In such a ministerial-level meeting, elected officials take over from civil servant negotiators for the most intense bargaining and horse-trading.

The focus of the next few weeks will therefore be to narrow the outstanding differences between countries enough to put a political deal within reach.

Tariffs of as much as 300 per cent currently shield Canadian dairy and poultry farmers from foreign competitors. A rise in imports could easily destabilize Canada's carefully calibrated supply management system, which tightly regulates the price and production of milk, chicken and eggs – industries worth about $10-billion a year.

The chicken farmers' Mr. Dungate said Canada is hardly the only country that protects agricultural sectors.

New Zealand, which thrives on dairy exports and has been dubbed the "Saudi Arabia of milk," is a major critic of Canada's sheltered dairy industry and has been prodding the Canadian government to open up protected agricultural markets at the Trans-Pacific talks.

Mr. Dungate points out New Zealand is largely closed to foreign chicken.

"The biggest criticisms about supply management come from New Zealand, which doesn't let any chicken in," Mr. Dungate said.

New Zealand blocks imports of raw and frozen poultry on the grounds it wants to keep serious diseases out of its domestic flocks.

This measure is "clearly designed so they can have their own domestic chicken industry and not have any competition," Mr. Dungate said.

By comparison, Canada is the 15th largest importer of chicken in the world, he noted. Among Trans-Pacific partners, "we import more chicken than the U.S., Peru, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia and Brunei combined," he said.