The Trump administration struck a tentative deal to lift tariffs on imported tomatoes from Mexico. But importers warn the agreement could still put protectionist roadblocks in the path of $2 billion worth of the produce.
Mexico supplies more than half the fresh tomatoes sold in the U.S., and imports have more than doubled since 2002. Florida growers, who used to dominate the market for tomatoes in the winter and spring, have long complained that Mexico unfairly subsidizes its tomato crop.
In May, the Trump administration slapped a 17.5 percent tariff on imported tomatoes and resumed an investigation into whether Mexico is "dumping" the fruit at artificially low prices. The new agreement, if finalized next month, will suspend that investigation and lift the tariffs. "This draft agreement meets the needs of both sides and avoids the need for antidumping duties," Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement.
Florida growers welcomed the deal.
"The agreement establishes unprecedented measures and enforcement provisions that will help protect American tomato farmers from injurious dumped Mexican tomatoes," said a statement from the Florida Tomato Exchange, a growers group.
A group representing importers said it was gratified that the administration is lifting the tariffs on Mexican fruit. But it cautioned that beefed-up inspections could act as another barrier to free trade.
The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, which represents more than 100 companies in the produce-importing hub of Nogales, Ariz., warned the agreement could require border inspection of more than 90 percent of imported tomatoes.
"At that level, the inspections are not only unnecessary, they also have the potential to destabilize the U.S. tomato market," said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the importers' group.
The Commerce Department disputes that, saying only about 65 percent of imported tomatoes would be subject to inspection at the border. The agreement specifically excludes one popular category of imports — tomatoes on the vine.
The agreement also sets new minimum prices for imports.
Florida lawmakers, led by Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ted Yoho, pressed the administration to adopt a hard line on Mexican tomatoes. Yoho told the president he would not vote to ratify a new trade agreement with Mexico unless the seasonal produce conflict was addressed first.
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