(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 3) Potato industry leaders are saying an unexpected turnaround by the Mexican government concerning potato import rules would further restrict U.S. access rather than expand it.

For a decade the two countries and potato industry leaders have been working to increase access for U.S. growers. Fresh potatoes from the U.S. are restricted to a 16-mile border zone in Mexico.

In September it looked like the invisible line would be erased because the Mexican government published a proposed rule for full access. It was expected to become law this month. That proposal included mitigation measures for six pests identified by an international panel of experts as the only ones likely to cause problems for Mexico’s potato industry.

Mexican proposal puts more limits on potato trade“In November they published a document ignoring the experts and naming 80 pests,” said John Keeling, chief executive officer for the National Potato council, Washington, D.C.

The Nov. 20 proposed rule also calls for irradiation of potatoes being imported into Mexico. Keeling said the combined effect of that requirement and the list of 80 pests will further restrict U.S. exports of fresh potatoes to Mexico, rather than open up the country as was detailed in a 2003 market access agreement.

The Mexican government is accepting comments on the proposed rule for 60 days after the Nov. 20 publication date. Comments must be submitted in Spanish and “must be of a scientific and technical basis,” according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

The USDA report includes additional details on how to comment.

Keeling said it is not clear why the Nov. 20 proposal is so different than the one published in September. He has hopes the election of Mexico’s new president Enrique Pena Nieto will help with efforts to restore the previous plan.

“We are encouraging (growers and exporters) to submit comments describing their mitigation measures,” Keeling said.

Some in the fresh produce industry believe the about face on the potato rule is a retaliatory move by Mexico in response to Florida tomato growers challenging the suspension agreement for their commodity.

However, Keeling doesn’t think the trade issues are dependent on each other.

“When you have a trade dispute as big as the tomato agreement it of course colors all aspects of trade,” Keeling said Jan. 2.

“But the potato discussion has been going on for years and has been contentious. I really don’t think the tomato agreement has any impact on us (the potato industry).”

Mexican proposal puts more limits on potato tradeLance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales, Ariz., is concerned about the potato rule, as well as the U.S. tomato suspension agreement with Mexico. However, he stopped short of saying the two trade issues are related.

“Absent pest concerns, we support open markets between the U.S. and Mexico for all items, but unfortunately we’ve been drawn into a wild goose chase that is sapping away resources to move trade forward between both countries,” Jungmeyer said Jan. 3.

“The food production in both countries is complementary, and consumers in both countries should be able to enjoy food at reasonable prices that meets market demand.”

Full access to the Mexican market would allow U.S. growers to reach 70 million to 80 million more consumers, Keeling said. Industry leaders say full access would mean $150 million in export value to U.S. growers.

Mexican proposal puts more limits on potato tradeThe National Potato Council plans to submit comments on the Nov. 20 proposal, as does the Idaho Potato Commission, said Patrick Kole, commission vice president of legal and government affairs.

“We plan to submit comments the week of Jan. 14 and will discuss in broad terms the pest mitigation and other factors,” Kole said.

“The U.S. potato industry speaks with one voice on this issue and we know the National Potato Council is working to deliver the message.”

The Washington Potato Commission, Moses Lake, Wash., also plans to submit comments, said Matt Harris, assistant executive director. He said Washington exported 21,000 tons of potatoes to Mexico this past year.

Mexican proposal puts more limits on potato trade“We are trying to figure out why they made the change,” Harris said. “There is no clear answer to that question. For 10 years they were working in one direction and then (in November) everything changed.”

A bipartisan group of 17 U.S. senators from potato-producing states is also pursuing enforcement of the terms of the 2003 agreement. The senators sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Dec. 21 asking for the administration’s help to resolve the potato export issue.

Senators who signed that letter were: Mark Udall, D-Colo.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; John Hoeven, D-N.D.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Max Bacus, D-Mont.; James Risch, R-Idaho; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.