(UPDATED COVERAGE, Oct. 12) Another front has been opened in the conflict between U.S. and Mexican tomato producers.

In the midst of uncertainty over the fate of the suspension agreement between Mexican growers and the U.S., there is a new over a proposal to more tightly define what constitutes greenhouse grown produce and create differentiation compared with tomatoes grown in shade houses or other protected agriculture environments in Mexico.

Greenhouse growers enter U.S.-Mexico tomato disputeImports of greenhouse tomatoes from Mexico have taken a bigger share of rising tomato imports, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About one-quarter of U.S. imports of 949,000 metric tons of Mexican tomatoes were labeled greenhouse grown in 2007, but the percentage termed greenhouse tomatoes rose to 39% of 1.32 million metric tons of Mexican tomato imports by 2011, according to USDA trade statistics.

Aiming to eliminate misbranding greenhouse grown tomatoes and increase prices, a coalition that includes California tomato marketers is seeking a change in the state’s definition of a greenhouse tomato. The move could lead to a harmonized national definition that could eventually put in place new marketing order demands on Mexican tomatoes previously labeled as greenhouse grown.

Representatives of Certified Greenhouse Farmers, Ventura, Calif., took their case to the California Department of Food and Agriculture Oct. 9. They testified in favor of a proposed amendment to clarify existing codes and align with efforts at the federal level in the U.S. and Canada to establish a definition for hydroponic greenhouse produce.

The group advocated for this definition for the California code, according to the release:

“Tomatoes labeled with the term ‘greenhouse grown’ shall be considered mislabeled unless tomatoes are grown in a fully enclosed permanent aluminum or fixed-steel structure clad in glass or impermeable plastic using automated irrigation and climate control, including heating and ventilation capabilities, in an artificial medium that substitutes for soil using hydroponic methods.”

The previous definition, written in 2004, said “Tomatoes labeled with the term “greenhouse grown” shall be considered mislabeled unless tomatoes are grown in a fixed steel structure using irrigation and climate control, in an artificial medium that substitutes for soil.”

One industry leader who testified at the hearing said the definition should help lead to a harmonized U.S. definition.

Greenhouse growers enter U.S.-Mexico tomato dispute“Let’s get this definition in place, let’s get it harmonized with what we have currently in place in Canada and starting moving it forward in the U.S.,” said Ed Beckman, president of the

Certified Greenhouse Farmers, Fresno. The trade association represents about 95% of the greenhouse tomatoes grown in California, according to the release.

California greenhouse tomato growers Casey Houweling, president of Houweling’s Nurseries and Steven Newell, president of Windset Farms, also testified in support of the amendment.

Speaking against the proposal were Eric Viramontes, director of the Mexican Association of Protected Horticulture and Martin Ley, vice president of Del Campo Supreme Inc., Nogales, Ariz., also representing the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

Viramontes could not be reached for comment. Ley said he testified at the CDFA hearing on Oct. 9 that the state’s definition of greenhouse grown tomatoes put in place in 2004 was already very restrictive. Ley said both he and Viramontes argued that greenhouse technology is largely driven by climate patterns and latitude of growing areas. Ley said trying to dictate the universal application of technology doesn’t make sense.

“This is why the California definition is not a good one for the industry,” he said. “We really need a definition that is inclusive, not a definition that is exclusive,” he said. An exclusive definition will lead to conflict within the industry and with exporters in other countries, in addition to hindering the development of new technology. While the definition might help some U.S. greenhouse operators gain retail shelf space, he said the gains would not be sustainable.

“The idea of trying to take ownership of the word greenhouse is a bad idea,” Ley said. He said a better use of time would be to define “protected agriculture.”

The booming growth of the greenhouse category has resulted in some growers and shippers mislabeling field-grown produce as “greenhouse,” according to the California greenhouse group. “Greenhouse grown” and “protected agriculture” are often wrongly used interchangeably, according to the release.

The request for a hearing with the California Department of Food and Agriculture was submitted in April, and Beckmann said he believes the agency will consider the testimony they heard and probably issue a decision sometime in 2013.

The newly proposed definition is embraced by U.S. and Canadian greenhouse interests and aims to be a harmonized U.S. definition for greenhouse grown tomatoes, Beckman said.

“The concern is, that unlike for certified organic, there really isn’t a definition in place,” Beckman said. He said Mexican field tomatoes have been sold into the market place as greenhouse grown.

“There is evidence of hundreds of thousands of pounds of tomatoes being mislabeled under the California code,” he said. “It is simply time to bring a definition to the marketplace so that a consumer who wants to buy a greenhouse tomato has some assurance that it is actually a greenhouse tomato that they are purchasing,’ Beckman said. USDA statistics on imports of greenhouse tomatoes are unreliable, since it seems some field grown tomatoes are being imported as greenhouse product.

Beckman said the effort to revise the greenhouse definition is separate from the dispute about the suspension agreement, but he said there are issues that tie into growers’ concern about Mexican tomatoes.

“There are issues related to how the suspension agreement currently impacts the greenhouse industry in the U.S., and yes, there have been reports that we have had product that has been crossed into the U.S. that has been crossed as greenhouse simply because the (suspension agreement) price matrix is based not upon the product value but the weight of the carton,” he said.

In addition, he said the Florida industry has a marketing order that has minimum quality standards for tomatoes that also apply to Mexican tomato imports during the Florida marketing window. However, that marketing order doesn’t apply to greenhouse tomatoes, so Beckman said Mexican field tomatoes may also be mislabeled as greenhouse to circumvent the marketing order as well. The definition may assist in the development of tomato safety metrics, Beckman said.