(Nov. 12) WASHINGTON, D.C. — With a new suspension agreement in place, tomato shippers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are turning their attention to the next obstacle: holding the new deal in place.

“I have a real concern with the whole thing. I‘m not very comfortable with the whole thing,” said Tony DiMare, an officer with Homestead, Fla.-based DiMare Homestead Inc.

Much of DiMare’s concern with the new agreement, which was finalized Nov. 12, centers on the reference price, which the new agreement allowed to stand at the current $5.22 per 25-pound carton.

“One thing I don’t understand and was never given an answer to was why we never did get an increase,” DiMare said. “One side is always going to say they don’t want one, but they’re not comfortable with any increase.”

DiMare said U.S. producers would have settled for a 4-cent increase.

“It was a little less than what the numbers showed in the Mexican ag producer price index the last five years,” he said.

The deal does provide some additional muscle to enforcement provisions, however, with the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Customs working together and providing stronger penalties, said Lee Frankel, president of the Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

“Customs was invited very early in the process to help Commerce draft language that Customs would be comfortable enforcing,” Frankel said. “There are so many details that, at times, conflicted with each other in the old agreement, it rendered them relatively powerless except in the case of blatant fraud.”

Penalties may vary case by case, Frankel said.

“They each carry different penalties, from fines up to and including jail time, based on their nature and the frequency of violations,” he said.

Stronger enforcement provisions overtake price issues in any such agreement, said Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Commission.

“Pricing is a moot issue if the enforcement isn’t there,” he said. “There’s no level playing field for Mexican producers if there’s not 100% participation or the enforcement is lacking.”

Beckman said tomato producers in California and Baja California welcomed the new deal.

“But, it had to work, be verifiable,” he said. “Credit growers on both sides of the border for recognizing what needed to be one, but also credit our respective governments for listening and most importantly, acting on our concerns.”

The pact replaces an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that had suspended a dumping investigation of Mexican tomatoes in October 1996 and established a minimum price for Mexican tomatoes shipped to the U.S.

With the agreement up for renewal, Mexican growers pulled out of the agreement in July and anti-dumping duties averaging 17.56% against Mexican tomatoes resumed.

Had a new agreement not been in place, the DOC was due to issue preliminary findings in December, and the U.S. International Trade Commission would follow in late January with its findings on damages.

Frankel said he’d withhold judgment on the workability of the new deal. But for the present, he said, a deal appears to be a positive step.

“With the worsening climate with agricultural trade between U.S. and Mexico and the way things are going, it would have been a political risk, even though the legal case (for exonerating the Mexican growers) was fairly strong,” Frankel said.