(May 23, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) The World Trade Organization again has ruled in favor of the U.S. in its ongoing dispute with the European Union over its banana import regime.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said in a news release that it was the 11th time the EU’s regime has been found inconsistent with its WTO or General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade obligations.

“I am very pleased with the WTO decision,” Schwab said. “We regret that the EU has failed to comply with previous panel findings on bananas and look forward to finally seeing this issue resolved.”

That won’t happen right away. The Associated Press reported that the EU intends to appeal a WTO compliance panel’s May 19 ruling.

The WTO also recently ruled against the EU in a complaint filed by Ecuador. According to the AP, that country claims to have lost $131 million in the first 15 months since a new tariff was implemented in 2006.

The EU has modified its import regime several times, but none of its tariffs have withstood challenges from the U.S. and Latin America. The WTO upheld U.S. sanctions of European goods in 1999, but those sanctions were lifted in 2001 when the U.S. and the EU reached an agreement, under which the EU was to transition to a tariff-only regime from a license-and-quota system.

The EU implemented a new tariff on Latin American bananas in 2006 at 176 euros per ton. As of May 21, that tariff was the equivalent of $277.43 per ton.

The U.S. — home to banana giants Del Monte, Dole and Chiquita — and Latin American countries have argued that the EU’s system unfairly favors countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, many of which are former British and French colonies. Those countries have been allowed to ship up to 775,000 tons to Europe duty-free.

The U.S. and Ecuador both argued that allowing the former colonies a duty-free quota violated what was supposed to be a tariff-only regime, and the WTO panel agreed.

Several published reports have said the panel’s ruling means that the U.S. again could impose retaliatory taxes on European imports equal to damages incurred by U.S. companies.

However, a U.S. trade official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that isn’t necessarily the case.

“That’s not on the table,” he said.

It’s unclear how much money U.S. fruit companies have lost during a dispute that has lasted more than a decade. A spokesman for Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla., declined comment, and a spokesman for Chiquita Brands International Inc., Cincinnati, could not be reached for comment.

Chiquita said in its annual report last year that the tariff added $75 million to its net costs in 2006.

“The company encourages efforts to lower the tariff through negotiations with the EU,” said Marty Ordman, vice president of marketing and corporate communications for Dole Food Co. Inc., Westlake, Calif. “The sooner this moves forward, the better.”

The trade official said WTO regulations require the organization to rule on an appeal within 90 days of its filing.

An EU spokesman told the AP the EU plans to appeal because it modified its tariffs for the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries in January. The U.S. trade official, however, said that the EU has not been forthcoming with details about those changes.

The trade official said that if the EU dropped its duty-free quota for the former colonies, it could be a step toward WTO compliance because it would level the playing field.

Changes in how the EU treats Africa will affect Chiquita, which announced partnerships this spring to source bananas from Angola and Mozambique in an effort to lower its tariff burden in Europe. Chiquita has said shipments from those countries could account for up to 30% of the company’s banana volume in Europe.

Meanwhile, the trade official said that representatives of the EU and Latin American banana producers are negotiating in Geneva in an effort that could lead to lowering the tariff.