(Adds comment from U.S. rice exporter, updates prices)
CHICAGO, July 20 (Reuters) - China officials have agreed to allow imports of U.S. rice for the first time ever, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Thursday.
The move would give U.S. farmers access to the world's biggest rice consumer, with China importing about 5 million tonnes last year, Perdue said in a statement.
China opened its rice market when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 but a lack of phytosanitary protocol between China and the United States effectively banned imports, according to trade group USA Rice.
"We waited a decade for the protocol to be signed and our members are anxious to meet the demand of China's consumers for safe, high-quality U.S. rice," USA Rice President Betsy Ward said in a statement, adding that China consumes the equivalent of the entire U.S. rice crop every 13 days.
The USDA last month estimated U.S. milled rice production this year at 6.07 million tonnes, down from 7.12 million tonnes last year.
The announcement was another sign of strengthening relations on agriculture trade between the United States and China under U.S. President Donald Trump, despite disagreements in other areas such as steel.
China last month resumed imports of U.S. beef for the first time since 2003. Last week, Chinese buyers inked deals valued at about $5 billion during a ceremony in Iowa to buy 12.53 million tonnes of U.S. soybeans and 371 tonnes of beef and pork.
U.S. rice futures rose about 14 cents to a one-year high at $12.00 per cwt after the news.
China intends to send inspectors to visit U.S. rice mills and facilities to ensure shipments would not introduce pests into China, said Carl Brothers, chairman of the USA Rice International Trade Policy Committee.
Stuart Hoetger, a rice trader at California's Calrose Co-op, said he hoped to sell rice to China as soon as retailers there were approved to take in imports. The cooperative of California rice farmers already has customers in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia.
"I don't think it will explode overnight but I think it could turn into significant demand," Hoetger said.
(Reporting by Michael Hirtzer; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)