In recent years La Asociación Mexicana de Horticultura Protegida (AMHPAC) has devoted its main energies to getting its own house in order.

Issues such as traceability, food safety and social responsibility were and remain priorities for the group.

But as winter approaches, AMHPAC is girding itself for battle in defense of the tomato suspension agreement between Mexico and the U.S.

In September, the Department of Commerce announced its preliminary decision to terminate a suspended antidumping investigation, basically killing the agreement. The Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee had asked the department and the U.S. International Trade Commission to withdraw from a 1996 anti-dumping duty petition.

A final decision from the Department of Commerce could come anytime between November and April.


A changed industry

After the Florida request, Culiacan, Sinaloa-based AMHPAC turned to member growers to raise money.

“We put in a new assessment just for defense purposes,” chief executive officer Eric Viramontes said. “We saw the need to put in place a mechanism that would allow us to defend our industry and react every time we’re attacked.”

AMHPAC, which had levied assessments before for promotion and other purposes, hasn’t disclosed the amount of this one, saying only that it varies by grower size. AMHPAC has 369 members representing more than 8,000 hectares of protected agriculture.

AMHPAC frames its argument in terms of scope of impact and grower efficiency.

“What we’re trying to prove is how much the tomato industry has changed,” Viramontes said.

“The Florida growers are trying to say they have no interest in the 1996 dumping case, but they don’t represent anywhere close to 85% of the industry. There are so many more players in the game now. Thirty-four states produce tomatoes. A lot of that isn’t leaving each state, so it’s not being registered,” he said.


Retail, jobs are considerations

The broader impact of ending the agreement, as he sees it, would be on retail supply, border region economies and U.S. jobs in the tomato industry and industries that service it.

“It puts the consumer at risk of U.S. demand not being fulfilled,” Viramontes said. “You’d be increasing the price of tomatoes drastically, making them an unacceptable product.”

“If the tomatoes don’t come from Mexico and the U.S. is not capable of supplying the quality the population demands, they’ll come from someplace else,” he said. “So which door is being opened? Asia, other parts of the world? We don’t know who, but it would destroy jobs in the U.S. and give them to somebody else.”

Arizona, Texas and California might be hit hardest, he said.

“On the border, the whole microeconomy revolves around the inputs from Mexico, and one of the biggest items is tomatoes,” Viramontes said. “That’s what we’re trying to tell (the Department of) Commerce.”

That’s how AMHPAC is playing defense. On offense, it claims its growers’ increased efficiencies are the real cause of any pressures felt in Florida.

“In the last 10 years or so, we’ve just been pounded with so many different things,” Viramontes said. “Food safety, quality, security, responsibility. The only way to make that cost not affect the final price is to become more efficient, and we have.

“Florida still uses the same growing systems they had in place then. You don’t see greenhouses, shadehouses. Some growers there say they don’t invest because of the high risk of hurricanes. But we face that risk too on our coast; there are systems to deal with it,” he said.

In mid-October, representatives of Mexican growers met with Department of Commerce officials to propose raising the floor price of tomatoes 18% to 25%, depending on variety, and including all Mexican growers in the agreement.

It was not immediately clear whether that would move the dispute closer to resolution.

Reggie Brown, executive director of the Florida Tomato Exchange, told The Packer the suspension agreement was fundamentally flawed and biased.