(Aug. 26) SAN DIEGO — It took a lot to bring together tomato industry representatives from all three countries in North America. A lot of dumping investigations, for one thing.

An unprecedented gathering of field and greenhouse tomato industry leaders from the U.S., Canada and Mexico met Aug. 14-15 in San Diego.

The North American Tomato Trade Working Group first met in March with only four U.S. and Canadian participants, but the latest meeting brought about 25 industry leaders and several government officials from the three countries, said Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Commission.

“People agreed we would not have had the meeting if we had not gone through the trade wars,” Beckman said.

RECENT BATTLES

Recent trade battles include a Canadian dumping investigation of U.S. tomatoes, a U.S. dumping investigation of Canadian greenhouse tomatoes and an ongoing U.S. dumping investigation into Mexican tomatoes.

Beckman served as chairman of the San Diego meeting, and that title will rotate as the meetings change venues. The next meeting is set during the Produce Marketing Association convention in October in New Orleans.

At the San Diego meeting, the U.S. greenhouse industry officially joined the working group, in addition to field and greenhouse representatives from West Mexico and Baja California, he said.

“The good part of it was that the U.S. greenhouse guys were there and we reconnected with them,” said Denton Hoffman, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Producers Marketing Board, Leamington.

AGENCIES REPRESENTED

Government agencies represented at the meeting included the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service and their counterparts from Mexico and Canada.

After some strategic planning, the group developed a charter statement for growers.

The working group charter, Beckman said, is to enhance the priorities of the North American tomato producer by developing the North American tomato market, identifying and resolving common issues and providing a platform for the prevention of future trade litigation.

The group will accomplish that through improved communication, self-policing and using existing means to increase net returns to tomato producers in North America.

He said joint promotions of North American tomatoes are not being considered at this point, considering the wide range of issues that need immediate attention.

SEVERAL PRIORITIES

Beckman said several strategic priorities are being pursued before the next meeting.

One of those priorities is the formation of an information clearinghouse to dispel rumors, share market information and provide real-time trading statistics. Hoffman said the goal will be to share statistics without giving away trade secrets.

Another key issue is the goal to harmonize trade rules, including the definition of greenhouse tomatoes, arrival standards for U.S. tomatoes in Canada and harmonization of food safety and packing standards.

Another priority is to have a forum where traders can air their concerns before initiating a dumping action against imports.

Hoffman said the group — members of which will have a conference call every week — has committed to self-policing its various industries, to monitor transactions to ensure shippers don’t sell at different prices, or sell below the cost of production.

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Orlando, said the group will provide a forum to avoid future litigation.

“There are no guarantees in any business. It was a constructive step on the part of all the participants,” he said.

Beckman said the group would like to have new systems in place by the beginning of 2003. The working group is moving forward on some safeguards that would effectively prevent dumping into the U.S. and Canadian markets, Beckman said.