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FPAA, Florida trade jabs in TSA spat

The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas continued to press its contention that the American public will be harmed by the decision to withdraw from the Tomato Suspension Agreement, prompting interests in Florida to fire back with assertions that the move will help protect U.S. growers and consumers.

According to a statement released March 12 by the FPAA, up to 33,000 American jobs are threatened by a U.S. Department of Commerce decision to withdraw from the TSA, adding that it would have the double impact of increasing tomato prices for American consumers.

"Tomato supplies stand to drop, with corresponding price increases for American consumers, as a result of Commerce's notice of intent," read the statement by FPAA, a group that represents over 100 U.S. member companies involved in growing, packing, sales and transportation of fresh fruits and vegetables grown in Mexico.

In response, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) issued the following statement: "Washington's willingness to sacrifice entire domestic industries and local production just to shave pennies off the costs that American consumers might pay for products is one of the main reasons why Donald Trump is president today. He rightly understood there is no dignity for American workers in buying cheaper, imported goods without domestic production supporting jobs, paychecks and livelihoods. Florida benefits greatly from fairly traded imports through some of the best seaport infrastructure in the world. Unfortunately, Mexican seasonal fruit and vegetable imports continue to pour in across the southern border with little regard for the rules that are supposed to guarantee that freely imported goods are also fairly traded."

Citing a recent University of Arizona report, FPAA contends that even in the conservative case of a 5 percent reduction in supplies of Mexican tomatoes, consumers would end up paying up to 25 cents more per pound at supermarkets, or up to $790 million more per year for tomatoes.

In recent decades, America's demand for vine-ripened tomatoes, tomatoes-on-the-vine, Romas, cherry and grape tomatoes, organics and more has been increasingly filled by farms in Mexico, which has a climate that is particularly suited to tomatoes. The demand for vine-ripened Mexican tomatoes has built up a supply chain that supports over 33,000 U.S. jobs and nearly $3 billion in U.S. GDP, said FPAA.

"Yet, in order to corner the market over their other competitors, a small group of wealthy tomato farmers from the politically connected Florida Tomato Exchange are pushing unreasonable changes to interstate commerce norms," FPAA said in a recent letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

"The truth appears to be that leaders of the Florida Tomato Exchange are on a campaign to portray themselves as the victims to trade while leveraging U.S. trade law to corner the market and drive out competition," said FPAA President Lance Jungmeyer.

"The faulty economic foundation created by this unfair foreign trade continues to enrich Mexican producers and domestic importers and distributors at the expense of domestic producers," Sen. Rubio added in his statement. "We cannot stand by as some profit from unfair fruit and vegetable imports directly at the expense of their neighbors and countrymen. Fortunately, President Trump and Secretary Ross understand the importance of an economy that values both domestic production and fairly traded import goods. After all, free, fair, and reciprocal trade should not just be a slogan, it must be the only way of doing business with the United States of America."

In its statement, FPAA said that farmers from Florida continue to grow gassed-green tomatoes, an innovation from before World War II in which tomatoes are picked green then artificially de-greened in gas rooms that have been injected with ethylene gas. These gassed tomatoes have lost consumer appeal to vine-ripened tomatoes grown in most other growing regions. At the same time that Florida Tomato Exchange members claim harm from Mexican tomato imports, these very companies have been driving investments and partnerships in Mexico.

"It is beyond ironic that the growers that grow the largest percentage of Florida tomatoes also own and finance some of the largest growing operations in Mexico," Jungmeyer said.

In response, Michael Schadler, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said, "Mexican tomato imports have a nearly 60 percent share of the U.S. market, so it's not surprising that some of the bigger American tomato producers have diversified a portion of their production into Mexico. The fact that these same growers support termination of the suspension agreement illustrates just how bad the agreement has been for the U.S. industry. It should also be pointed out that the circumvention of the suspension agreement hurts Mexican growers and importers who play by the rules. That is why many of the growers who have production on both sides of the border are in favor of termination."