Tomato suspension case debated at Mexico conventionGUADALAJARA, Mexico — Mexico’s greenhouse tomato producers are working for peace but preparing for war.

While Mexican tomato industry representatives continue working with commerce officials to avoid a possible trade war resulting from Florida growers’ call to end the tomato suspension agreement, members of AMHPAC approved an assessment based a grower’s number of hectares to raise funds for legal fees in the case.

The vote took place Aug. 22 on the opening day of the annual convention of AMHPAC, the Mexican association of protected horticulture.

Eric Viramontes, AMHPAC director general and chief executive officer, said the marketplace has room for growers from all regions and that Florida’s effort distracted from a shared interest in growing U.S. tomato consumption.

“We would love not to fight,” Viramontes said Aug. 24.

He said scuttling the agreement could bring retaliatory action from Mexico.

In 2009, Mexico slapped retaliatory duties on U.S. shipments of apples, cherries, grapes, pears and other items after the Obama administration ended a pilot program for Mexican trucks in the U.S. The situation was resolved and tariffs scaled back in 2011.    

Citing unfair trade practices, the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange filed documents in late June with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission requesting withdrawal from the 1996 suspension agreement, an anti-dumping duty petition regulating a floor price for Mexican imports.

Commerce officials ruled Aug. 21 the agency it will take comments on the tomato suspension case until Sept. 4.

U.S. tomato interests had urged the Commerce Department to terminate the suspension agreement, with Florida growers saying they have been subject to unfair trade practices from Mexican tomato exporters for years.

Hot for peppers?

Uncertainty about the tomato market stemming from the suspension agreement controversy is leading some Mexican growers to move toward producing more peppers or other vegetable crops this season, said Fried de Shouwer, president of Greenhouse Produce Co. LLC, Vero Beach, Fla., which sources from greenhouses in several areas of Mexico.

Seed companies have seen increased orders for bell pepper seeds and other non-tomato vegetable crops, he said.

While tomato producers in Mexico and Florida are on the front lines of the suspension agreement situation, the financial stake of U.S. retail and foodservice clients regarding the need for a stable tomato market adds to the urgency to settle the issue in a timely manner.

Chris Ciruli, chief operations officer of Nogales, Ariz.-based importer Ciruli Bros., said the amount of business and money on the line on both sides of the border and to so many allied sectors of the economy — transportation, distribution, equipment, marketing — should result in Mexican and U.S. trade negotiators coming to a resolution.

Tomatoes account for about 60% of production among AMHPAC’s 260 members, with bell peppers, squash, eggplant and other vegetables making up the difference, Viramontes said.

The group’s convention ran Aug. 22-25.