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US, Mexico in food fight over tomatoes: How messy will it get?

American tomato growers, upset at Mexico's growing share of the US market, are taking steps that could lead to new tariffs on Mexican tomatoes. Mexico's ambassador threatened retaliation. 

By Ron SchererStaff writer / September 28, 2012

Tomatoes grow in a hothouse in San Luis de la Paz, Mexico, in February 2012.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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The tomato, one of America’s favorite vegetables, is the focus of a burgeoning cross-border food fight that Mexican officials say could escalate into a broader trade war.

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Mexican exporters currently supply about half the tomatoes consumed in the US. American growers, upset over what they see as a steady incursion of low priced Mexican produce, are trying to quash a deal that has kept the price of Mexican tomatoes low. The move could lead either to new tariffs on Mexican tomatoes or an agreement by the Mexicans to sell their produce at higher prices.

The Mexican government is threatening retaliation if the US tacks on any new tariffs.

“If Mexico’s interests end up being affected, Mexico will respond,” said Arturo Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador to the US in a statement. “When Mexico aims, Mexico hits the target.”

What does this mean for US consumers? Whether the US action results in higher tomato prices is hard to say. In public filings over the issue, large buyers of tomatoes, such as Wal-Mart, worry that any disruption of a stable and predictable supply of tomatoes from Mexico will hinder their ability to provide consistent pricing to the US consumer.

But the US growers say those fears are unfounded, maintaining that the US has the ability to grow enough tomatoes to keep every salad bar stocked at a reasonable price.

“I don’t anticipate consumer prices will be impacted significantly at all,” says Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, which represents growers there.

The Mexican government, meanwhile, is deeply suspicious over the timing of the tomato flap since it involves growers from politically sensitive Florida. Mexico’s minister of the economy, Bruno Ferrari, told Reuters this week it was “obvious” the request was timed to put political pressure on the White House ahead of the election.

Over the last several months, the Obama administration has become more aggressive in charging importers with dumping. This summer the US charged Chinese companies with unfair trade actions regarding cars and auto parts. The president touted that trade action while campaigning in Ohio, but Mitt Romney called it too little too late. Romney says he would get tough on China regarding trade issues if elected president.

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