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Mexican border zone open for U.S. potatoes

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service expected to recommence issuing phytosanitary certificates effective July 7 for U.S. potato exports to cities within a 26-kilometer zone along the U.S.-Mexico border after receiving confirmation from SAGARPA, the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, that exports to that zone will be allowed.

Potato exports from the United States have been permitted within the 26-kilometer zone for the last decade, but not beyond. On March 20 of this year, following years of negotiation between the two countries, the Mexican government published a final regulation regarding cross-border trade of fresh potatoes allowing shipments of potatoes between the United States and Mexico in both directions, with the details on phytosanitary and other protocols still to be worked out.

On May 19, the U.S. Potato Board and the National Potato Council announced in a joint press release that effective immediately "the Mexican government has implemented its final rule" to allow U.S. fresh potatoes to be shipped to all cities in Mexico with populations of 100,000 or greater.

But just three weeks later, SAGARPA announced that pursuant to a mandate from the Seventh District Court in the State of Sinaloa, fresh potato imports from the United States beyond a zone along the northern border would be provisionally, or temporarily, suspended.

The SAGARPA announcement left the U.S. potato industry in a state of confusion. The announcement stated that under the provisional suspension, things would remain as they were before the bilateral agreement became effective. While that language would seem to mean that exporting potatoes to cities within 26 kilometers of the U.S. Mexican border would still be permissible as has been the case for the past 10 years, APHIS was uncertain whether that was the correct interpretation and immediately ceased issuing all phytos for potatoes to Mexico pending clarification.

"The situation was completely unclear," said Mark Szymanski, director of public relations for the National Potato Council in Washington, DC, July 7. "I don't know that we understood what legal authority continued to exist or didn't exist or what SAGARPA could actually do given the legal authority they had."

NPC worked with APHIS "to try to determine exactly what the situation was on the border and whether or not that trade to that limited area could begin again." Also of concern was what effect if any, positive or negative, a resumption of trade to the border zone might have on the larger trade dispute, Szymanski said.

"We obviously sought some assurances from SAGARPA that their intention was to allow that market to be open in good faith," he said. "There was some making sure." It was "more of a confirmation or clarification."

It "took a while to gather the information, and we are, quite frankly still in that process," he said. "At this point we don't know anything other than that APHIS plans to start writing phytos today."