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Mexican importers, U.S. tomato producers square off on brewing trade dispute

WASHINGTON — Importers of Mexican tomatoes say that the U.S. Department of Commerce's step toward terminating the 16-year suspension agreement, officially announced Oct. 2, will wreak havoc on Mexican grower decisions and leave U.S. retailers without a stable supply of Mexican tomatoes.

The brewing trade dispute was being discussed among attendees of the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference, though United Fresh is not taking a position on the matter.

Advocates for Mexican importers are not keeping quiet, however, and during an Oct. 2 teleconference, they called out the Obama administration for playing politics in fast-tracking a decision on the Florida petition before the presidential election.

Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, John McClung, president of the Texas International Produce Association, and two other representatives expressed their disappointment in the decision, which appeared in the Oct. 2 Federal Register.

"There's a manufactured urgency on behalf of Florida folks to make Commerce act," said Mr. McClung, who believes a decision to terminate the accord will cost jobs for large-volume importers in Texas. There's also concern that Mexico may retaliate against commodities other than tomatoes, he added, pointing out that Mexico is the largest market for U.S. apples.

Commerce should take "more than a few weeks" to verify the Florida petition's argument that the grower groups represented 90 percent of U.S. tomato producers, Mr. Jungmeyer said. That issue is likely to be the topic of dueling documents as both sides have up to 40 days to submit documents on the ruling and DOC has up to 270 days to make a final decision.

U.S. producers are firing back. Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and an attendee of the United Fresh WPPC, said that the petition was far from a last-minute ploy before elections, and that the only goal of U.S. producers is to foster fair trade in response to changing market conditions.

"Since when is the Mexican industry the arbiter of U.S. statistics?" he asked in response to the dispute over using U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics to prove the 90 percent figure. Mr. Brown dismissed the "scare tactics" used by importers to drum up support, such as that there will be a shortage of tomatoes or that retaliation measures will affect other commodities.

"Every industry has the right to defend themselves against unfair trade practices," he said. "It's unfortunate the Mexican industry feels it has to intimidate other commodities" in arguing for its cause.

"So far Florida folks have gotten what they want," Mr. McClung said, adding that he hopes the parties can reach a rational solution.