* Florida growers, lawmakers urge quick action to end tomato
* Mexican growers offer to negotiate changes to agreement
* Arizona lawmakers back Mexican industry on pact
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Sept 18 Mexican tomato growers are
urging the U.S. Commerce Department to renegotiate a 16-year-old
tomato trade agreement with the United States, rather than give
into election-year pressure from Florida producers and lawmakers
to tear up the pact.
"Commerce has received a request by the Mexican signatories
for consultations regarding the suspension agreement. We have
agreed to hold consultations and expect to do so soon," a
Commerce official told Reuters on Tuesday.
Florida tomato growers complain the agreement is outdated
and fails to protect them against Mexican tomatoes sold in the
United States below the cost of production.
Tearing up the agreement would allow Florida producers to
file a new anti-dumping complaint, alarming the Mexican side
that prefers the stability provided by the pact.
With Florida growers pressing for a Commerce Department
decision before the Nov. 6 presidential election, Mexican
growers offered a proposal on Monday to renegotiate the pact,
representatives for the Mexican industry said.
"We've always said to them and the world that we're more
than open to explore and address any issues that they may see,"
said Martin Ley, an executive board member of the Fresh Produce
Association of the Americas.
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato
Exchange, said his group did not want a new agreement.
"We're still dealing with Commerce Department and the Obama
administration pandering to Mexicans. This is crazy. When are we
going to worry about American farmers?" he said.
Florida is the second-largest U.S. producer of tomatoes
behind California. U.S. production of both fresh and processing
tomatoes totals about $2 billion annually.
Mexico accounts for about 71 percent of the U.S. import
market for greenhouse tomatoes. Mexico and Florida historically
compete for the U.S. winter and early spring market.
The pact is called a "suspension agreement" because the
Commerce Department suspended anti-dumping proceedings against
Mexico in 1996 and negotiated a deal that sets a minimum price
at which Mexican tomatoes can be sold in the United States.
Mexican growers have offered to renegotiate the reference
price for Mexican tomatoes, now at 21 cents a pound. They also
have offered to beef up border enforcement to stop violations
and to bring more Mexican growers into the pact.
An attorney for the Mexican growers, speaking on condition
of anonymity, said they sought the 1996 suspension agreement to
stop a two-decade stream of anti-dumping cases brought by U.S.
producers that cost millions of dollars to fight.
The Commerce Department does not have authority to tear up
the agreement without the support of 85 percent of the U.S.
industry, and they don't have that, the attorney said.
Florida growers and their allies in other states claim to
represent more than 90 percent of the industry, but that is
based on U.S. Agriculture Department figures that leave out
large swaths of smaller tomato operations, he said.
"We think that they represent far less than half of the
industry," the attorney said.
Brown scoffed at that calculation, saying USDA production
figures are what matter and the Florida Tomato Exchange has
affidavits from growers representing 90 percent of that.
Ley accused the Florida producers of failing to keep pace
with changes in technology that have produced a tastier Mexican
tomato and propelled sales in the United States.
"They just want to take advantage of politics to force this
into the election," Ley said, noting the Florida growers' last
case was also in a presidential election year, in 1996.
Both sides have enlisted support from members of Congress to
make their case to the Commerce Department.
In three separate letters, Senator Bill Nelson,
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and 15 other members of
Florida's congressional delegation urged senior Commerce
Department officials to quickly terminate the pact.
A number of Arizona lawmakers, including Democratic
Representatives Ed Pastor and Raul Grijalva, have urged the
Commerce Department to keep the agreement in place.
Killing it "would immediately and negatively impact the $3
billion produce industry in Nogales, Arizona, which provides
more than 12,000 jobs in the region alone," Pastor said.