McALLEN, Texas — Mexican tomatoes have become so commonplace in grocery stores and American diets, it’s easy to forget we’re still in the middle of a trade dispute over them.

Texas conference revisits tomato dumping dispute

Greg Johnson
Editor

A workshop at the inaugural America Trades Produce Conference March 30 to April 1 revisited the tomato suspension agreement, and while all sides get along much better than 15 years ago, there’s still some bad feelings lingering.

Here’s a refresher on the agreement: In January 2008, the U.S. Department of Commerce reinstituted the suspension of its dumping investigation into Mexican tomatoes. The issue was first brought up in April 1996. The 2008 version is the third one and has no expiration date.

There are lots of details to the rule, but basically the suspension agreement sets a floor price for two different times of the year, and if Mexican tomato shippers violate it, a 17.5% duty would be applied to all Mexican tomatoes coming into the U.S.

We’re talking $1.5 billion worth of tomatoes coming from Mexico to the U.S. in 2010.

I have a personal history with the agreement, as I wrote about it in my first column for The Packer in April of 1997, comparing the Florida/Mexico trade dispute to major league baseball owners and players striking in 1994.

The theme for both was opposing sides risking the successful product they have because they can’t get along and share billions of dollars.

In the meantime, the two tomato rivals have learned to coexist, while in the sports world, now it’s the National Football League risking its business with a labor impasse.

Panelist Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said the agreement has allowed tomato shippers to avoid a market collapse for 15 years.

“They would prefer there be no floor, and we would prefer no Mexican tomatoes come into the U.S.,” Brown said. “So we meet in the middle. It’s a glass half full for both of us.”

Considering the conference was one for importers of Mexican produce, Brown’s honesty was met with a few groans, but the Q&A never got heated.

After all, it’s in importers’ best interests to get along and keep selling their high quality tomatoes to American consumers.

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In business, there’s nothing more important than getting paid.

So how is it that the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act doesn’t get more love?

Another conference workshop looked at “Getting Paid Across Borders.”

Patrick Hanemann, principal with Farm2Market Agribusiness Consulting, McAllen, likened PACA involvement to going to the dentist.

“We don’t look forward to it, but if you don’t go a couple times a year, things will be a lot worse.”

I’d say that’s not really giving PACA much love.

My impression is that the industry tends to think PACA is pretty complicated.

It can be, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture tries to ease that burden. Karla Whalen, chief of USDA’s PACA and a workshop panelist, said PACA offers a “good delivery” hotline (800-495-7222), staffed 12 hours a day by fruit and vegetable experts, to answer PACA questions.

You don’t even have to be PACA licensed to use the hotline or to file a PACA complaint, for that matter.

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Inaugural produce conferences are pretty rare. The United Fresh convention has been around more than 100 years. PMA’s annual convention is more than 60. The Canadian Produce Marketing Association, which is coming right up, hosts its 86th annual convention in Montreal.

Any of our readers remember those inaugural events?

The McAllen meeting is the second new convention in less than a year, with the New York Produce Show being the other.

There are always little things that go wrong with new conferences, such as running out of space for a meal or keeping speakers to their allotted times and staying on schedule.

The America Trades Produce Conference was useful in finding its niche for importers.

Co-host, along with the Texas Produce Association, Fresh Produce Association of the America’s president Lance Jungmeyer said next year’s ATP show is set for Nogales, Ariz., pending approval from the two group’s boards.

The McAllen Convention Center is only four years old, and was an excellent site for the meeting. Nogales has no comparable venue.

Jungmeyer said many details need to be worked out.

The meeting certainly looks like a keeper.

E-mail gjohnson@thepacker.com

Did you attend the America Trades Produce Conference? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.