Ag, trade officials field calls to curb Mexican produce imports

By Ryan McCrimmon 08/13/2020 01:28 PM EDT

Florida lawmakers on Thursday stepped up their calls for the Trump administration to take trade actions against Mexico to stem seasonal produce imports that they say are crushing U.S. fruit and vegetable growers.

During a virtual hearing with agriculture and trade officials, they argued that producers in the Sunshine State are disadvantaged by cheaper imports of produce like blueberries primarily from Mexico. Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) cited “government subsidies, cheap labor and suspect environmental practices” in Mexico that keep produce prices “artificially low.”

Key context: The meeting is the first of two hearings on the issue that the Trump administration promised to hold when officials were trying to secure votes in Congress for the USMCA, which replaced NAFTA. Southeastern lawmakers in particular were frustrated that the trade deal didn’t include protections against seasonal imports that are a top concern for growers in states like Florida and Georgia.

“Florida produce is in the direct crosshairs of these unfair trade practices,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “They are in essence deliberately trying to put them out of business by heavily subsidizing the domestic industry in Mexico.”

Produce groups and their allies on Capitol Hill have long wanted the administration to bring an anti-dumping and countervailing duty case against Mexico. They pushed to include language in the USMCA that would allow such cases to be based on a specific region and on season price data — a departure from current trade standards, which require at least three years of annual data from a majority of the nationwide industry to prove injury.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, said there’s a “dire need for this administration to take immediate action under existing trade authorities to stem the losses for our domestic seasonal produce industry.”

“With the USMCA now in full force, the clock is ticking,” she said, referencing the deal’s entry into force on July 1. The administration had promised to come up with a response to any trade distorting practices within two months after the USMCA took effect.

Domestic differences: Despite the bipartisan support among Florida lawmakers, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue noted that regional disagreements within the produce industry effectively diminished the administration’s leverage in prior negotiations with Mexico.

“Unfortunately, there was not unanimity,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out where that difference is. Our Western colleagues differ on these opinions from our southeastern colleagues and growers.”

Western growers, many of whom have their own operations south of the border to source produce year- round, largely opposed efforts to include such trade protections in the USMCA.

Other corners of the industry have also opposed taking any actions to curb seasonal imports, including importers like the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, an Arizona-based group that represents U.S.- owned distributors.

In written testimony, FPAA President Lance Jungmeyer said such action could create “a virtual monopoly on certain fruits and vegetables,” cost jobs in the Southwest and raise prices for U.S. consumers when domestic produce is out of season.

What’s next: U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said he’s working with Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to come up with a plan by Sept. 1. USTR will host a second hearing on the issue next Thursday at 9 a.m.

The primary question is what sort of action the White House might take to curb seasonal imports from Mexico or other suppliers. Such a move could also provide a political boost for President Donald Trump in the critical Sunshine State as he seeks reelection in November.

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