(UPDATED COVERAGE, June 28) Citing unfair trade practices, the Florida Tomato Exchange has asked the U.S. government to end its tomato suspension agreement with Mexico.

The Maitland-based organization has filed documents with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission requesting withdrawal from a 1996 anti-dumping duty petition, said Reggie Brown, the exchange’s executive vice president.

Withdrawing the anti-dumping petition would end the current suspension agreement, which sets a floor price for Mexican tomatoes exported to the U.S.

The current suspension agreement is the third put in place since the 1996 petition. During those 16 years, U.S. growers have been the victims of gamesmanship and evasive actions by Mexican growers, Brown said.

“Given the general overall condition of the industry, we’ll either find a resolution to this issue, or there may not be an industry in place in a few years,” Brown said. “Our intent is to find a resolution.”

For now, Brown doesn’t know what such a resolution would look like.

“We’ve just started down this road,” he said. “We’re starting to assess the options and opportunities, and we’ll proceed with remedies that we think are achievable.”

If the government ends the suspension agreement, there could be a “period of uncertainty” before a new import protocol is established, Brown said.

Mexican imports today are roughly three times the value they were when the case was first brought, Brown said. He said there has been virtually no change in the underlying reference price in the three suspension agreements that are supposed to reflect Mexican costs of production.

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of Palmetto, Fla.-based West Coast Tomato Inc., said Florida growers can compete with tomato growers anywhere, if given a level playing field.

“The reality of the situation is, Florida has been suffering from dumping of tomatoes from Mexican at below the cost of production for a number of years,” he said. “There’s a direct correlation between shrinking production in Florida and unfair business practices.”

Jerry Wagner, director of sales and marketing for Nogales, Ariz.-based Farmer’s Best, an importer of Mexican tomatoes, said his company does not dump tomatoes on the U.S. market.

Wagner said the surge in demand for Mexican tomatoes has been due to consumers’ preference for Mexican vine-ripes, romas and other varieties over gas-green Florida rounds.

“Over the past 16 years, we’ve seen the American consumer transition to varieties besides artificially-matured tomatoes,” he said. “We don’t see that trend stopping.”

In a statement, Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, which represents shippers and importers of Mexican produce, said the association is confident that Mexico has abided by the letter and intent of the suspension agreement.

“The suspension agreement has provided some order to the marketplace, which was the original intent,” Jungmeyer said. “We are pleased that since 1996, when the first Tomato Suspension Agreement took effect, tomato growers from Mexico have been diligent in complying with the agreement.”