U.S. weighs import curb on tomatoes from Mexico

Florida growers allege unfair competition


MEXICO CITY — Mexico and the United States are gearing up for a costly showdown over fresh tomatoes — a $3.5 billion business for the two countries — in a move that could boost the fortunes of some American tomato farmers but raise prices for U.S. consumers.

Growers in Florida have demanded cuts in imports from Mexico, and Washington appears inclined to support the Floridians. That would require ending a 16-year-old trade agreement and endanger tens of thousands of jobs on both sides of the border, advocates for the Mexican tomatoes say.

It also probably would increase the cost to U.S. consumers of fresh tomatoes. Mexico provides the United States with about half the fresh tomatoes it consumes. Many of the rest are grown in Florida, the United States’ No. 1 producer of fresh tomatoes.

In the last decade, Mexican growers have ramped up fresh-tomato production. In 2000, fresh-tomato exports totaled $412 million; by 2011, that figure had jumped to $1.81 billion.

U.S. importers of the Mexican varieties say they are tastier, cheaper, and more plentiful year-round. The Florida growers contend Mexico low-balls its prices.

Late last week, the department filed notice of intent to grant the Florida growers’ petition, a move that will allow them to formally accuse Mexican producers of illegal dumping. The decision, although preliminary, infuriated Mexico and a host of U.S. companies supporting the Mexican tomato.

There are fears of a wider trade war if Mexico retaliates by trying to restrict the tons of U.S. meat, poultry, grains, or other agricultural products that Mexico buys.