(Dec. 6) WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the first time in nearly two years, there are no border wars — and likely won’t be for the foreseeable future — between the U.S. tomato industry and either of their counterparts in Canada or Mexico.

Representatives of the Department of Commerce and Mexican growers and exporters organizations made that possible when they signed a new imported tomato suspension agreement Dec. 4 in Mexico City.

The deal came about five months after the U.S. and Canada resolved their own trade differences in an anti-dumping conflicts that ended with cases against each side being dismissed.

Exporters of Mexican tomatoes are required to follow the terms of the agreement when selling tomatoes to the U.S.

The deal, scheduled to take effect when it was published in The Federal Register the week of Dec. 9, suspends investigations by the Commerce Department and the U.S. International Trade Commission to determine whether Mexican tomatoes were sold at below-market prices in the U.S. market. Those findings had been due to be released Dec. 12.

The new agreement incorporates provisions to overcome certain shortcomings of the old suspension agreement, particularly in the area of enforcement. The deal contains provisions developed in consultation with the U.S. Customs Service that are designed to facilitate enforcement with tougher penalties than those that the old agreement had contained.

“We appreciate the great efforts put forth by the Mexican growers, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the government of Mexico, particularly the Department of Agriculture (of Mexico), in reaching the new agreement,” said Lee Frankel, president of the Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

Frankel credited Javier Usabiaga, Mexico’s agriculture secretary, for having heeded “the concerns and suggestions of the Mexican growers and U.S. marketers in Nogales.”

Under the deal, tomatoes from Mexico cannot be sold for less than an established floor price of 17.2 cents per pound in the summer and 21.08 cents per pound in the winter.

Some U.S. producers had complained that the reference price had not kept up with rising costs of production.

“That was one of Florida’s positions, to see (the price) higher,” said Chuck Ciruli, chairman of both the FPAA and Ciruli Bros., a Nogales-based shipper. “But that was unrealistic. The price was correct where it was and still is. With the new types of irrigation systems and new varieties, actually it was shown to the Department of Commerce that (production costs) had not gone up. That’s why I think Commerce decided that it shouldn’t be higher.”

Enforcement mechanisms in the agreement range from fines to jail time.

“While we don’t like this abandonment of the free trade ideals of NAFTA, this agreement keeps most of the fresh tomatoes demanded by U.S. consumers coming in from Mexico and guarantees the security of several thousand jobs both in the U.S. and in Mexico,” Frankel said.

Ciruli said that enforcement was the deal’s key element.

“The Mexican government is taking care that all growers participate; that was very, very important,” Ciruli said. “Then, on the American side, if there are people not following the exact agreement, there can be fines and jail time. So, that’s going to make all parties pay a lot of attention to things. So, we’re happy that it’s taken care of.”

The agreement ended a stalemate between the U.S. and Mexico that began during negotiations for renewal of a suspension agreement that had been in place since November 1996.

In May, Mexican producers and exporters announced that they were pulling out of the agreement that had suspended an anti-dumping investigation of Mexican tomatoes.

With the termination of the agreement, the Commerce Department reactivated its investigation and instructed the Customs Service to require anti-dumping duty deposits for entries made on or after July 30.

The Commerce Department and representatives of the Mexican industry then launched negotiations for a new deal that the latter had requested.

The department drafted a new agreement with input from U.S. tomato producers, U.S. Customs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The two sides initialed a new agreement Nov. 8, and a short commentary period followed.

“Those outside the industry might be surprised to learn that all parties, U.S. and Mexican, were on the same page going into these discussions on a new agreement,” Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Commission, said after the agreement was initialed. “Thus, in the new agreement, the parties focused on strengthening enforcement on both sides of the border prior to any other discussion.”