(Sept. 23) A bold, undisguised attempt to restrain trade — and par for the course.

That’s pretty much how Canadian hothouse tomato producers see the Florida tomato industry’s call to end the market order exemption for greenhouse and hydroponic tomatoes. Depending on what Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman decides, the issue could reignite an international tomato trade war that many thought was all but over.

Earlier this year, the Orlando-based Florida Tomato Committee recommended that Veneman remove the exemption for greenhouse and hydroponic tomatoes. The committee operates under a federal marketing order that allows for the regulation of such things as size and grade, but it has exemptions for types, such as roma tomatoes, cherry tomatoes — and greenhouse and hydroponic.

By calling for the removal of exemptions for the latter two, Florida’s tomato industry is essentially calling for a sharp reduction of imported vine, or cluster, tomatoes. That’s because imports must comply with any marketing order regulation covering grade, size, quality or maturity, and much of the on-the-vine product would not meet the minimum size requirement of 2 9/32 inches in diameter.

There is no timetable for Veneman’s decision. Domestic hothouse product grown outside Florida is not covered by the marketing order.

BARRIER

Denton Hoffman, general manager of Leamington-based Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, said Florida’s latest move could well be termed a nontariff trade barrier — one that could set back any progress that has been made recently by the North American Tomato Trade Work Group.

“It seems it may be a bigger request than Florida thinks,” Hoffman said of the recommendation. “Most of our vine tomatoes wouldn’t be allowed in. In terms of sizing, I can’t see USDA allowing all of the cluster tomatoes being outlawed.”

Hoffman said that after the recommendation came to light following the Florida tomato industry’s annual convention in early September he talked to Reggie Brown, manager of the tomato committee.

“I told him this is why we have this work group, to avoid these kinds of things,” Hoffman said.

Even though he doubts the exemption ultimately will be removed, Hoffman said the Canadian industry is clearly not pleased.

“I would not be in favor of anything that would be considered a nontariff trade barrier,” he said. “This isn’t the way to move forward. If this gets done, we’re moving backward.”

Brown said the recommendation doesn’t address the type of greenhouse or hydroponic tomato — only the type of production.

“All we’ve done is put forward a recommendation,” he said. “The USDA can come back and tell us anything they want.”

The work group, Brown said, is a mechanism for promoting dialogue among U.S., Mexican and Canadian tomato producers and hopefully finding ways to avoid litigation. At the convention, in fact, he said the work group “is moving forward and is a very progressive and constructive step.”

U.S. LAW

But Brown said the tomato committee, by making the recommendation to remove the exemptions for greenhouse and hydroponic tomatoes, is simply working within a framework provided under U.S. law, specifically the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937.

“This is a domestic market to the American producer,” he said. “That is just kind of how it is.”

Florida tomato producers said they’ve merely adopted some of the rationale provided by Canadian producers themselves in arguments in last year’s anti-dumping lawsuit. According to some of the Canadian testimony, hothouse and field-grown tomatoes are essentially the same.

“Why should they have an exemption when they’re competing against us?” said Jay Taylor, president of Palmetto, Fla.-based Taylor & Fulton Inc.

But Jay Colasanti, co-owner of Ruthven, Ontario-based Red Zoo Marketing, said there’s a clear distinction in the consumer’s mind between a gassed green 10 days old and a greenhouse tomato grown organically, packed and shipped within 48 hours.

“Sure, a tomato is a tomato, and they all compete with one another,” Colasanti said. “But consumer demands are different. That is the bottom line.”

Colasanti likens the uniqueness of cluster tomatoes within the tomato category to the uniqueness of grape tomatoes.

“Would they dare say you can’t market a grape tomato if it doesn’t meet (the size requirements of) a six-by-seven?” he said. “How can you compare the distinctive sizings of those particular products?”

NOT SURPRISED

Despite his protestations, Colasanti said the recommendation isn’t a total surprise.
“I think it’s just like the Florida tomato group to try to find a way to restrain trade,” he said. “Florida has been the catalyst of all tomato trade wars, and I don’t expect that to change.”