Mexico's Avocado Growers Grumble Over Unlikely Beachhead - Alaska

MEXICO - one of the world's largest producers of avocados - has sold none of the fresh green fruit in the United States since 1914.

US officials say they simply are protecting California and Florida avocado orchards from pests (seed weevils and certain fruit flies) found only in Mexico.

Mexican free-trade negotiators say the embargo is an unfair trade barrier - a ruse fostered by US growers to protect against lower-priced Mexican avocados.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) upholds the sanitary regulations of the participating nations. "We're very happy with the rules outlined in NAFTA. It puts the burden on the country claiming there's a non-tariff trade barrier to prove it," says Avi Crane of the California Avocado Commission.

And Mr. Crane has no problem with a separate accord - published in the US Federal Register on Oct. 19 - that opens the US market a crack; it allows Mexico to sell fresh avocados only to Alaska.

Mexican growers and officials are not impressed by the advance.

"Alaska? Nobody buys fresh avocados in Alaska," snorts Jorge Gutierrez Samperio of Sanidad Vegetal, the Mexican agricultural office in charge of health regulations.

Mexican and US officials have discussed a "systems approach" to permit some Mexican growers to ship avocados to midwestern and northeastern US states where they pose no danger to Florida or California orchards. The plan would verify that certain Mexican growing regions are pest-free and that procedures are in place to ensure that the Mexican fruit will not be infected in the shipping and packing process.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently reviewing the latest surveys and documentation submitted by Mexican officials. But there is growing impatience here. "US peaches have plagues we don't have. Yet we've accepted your peaches under a screened system. Why can't our avocados be accepted? We've complied with everything asked for on avocados but there's been no reciprocity, only delays," Mr. Gutierrez says.

USDA official Ed Ayers replies that peaches can be fumigated to kill the pests but there is no treatment for avocados infected with seed weevils.

"We are reviewing their proposal and we haven't said no," he says. "It's a time-consuming process."

Indeed, US officials admit that before Alaska will be opened to Mexican avocados, there will be a one-month public comment period, then a review period of a month or two, and perhaps several months more before other US agencies have approved the change.

Given the blossoming US taste for Mexican food amid the continued restrictions on imports, some Mexican growers have found another way into the US market. The tough restrictions apply to fresh avocados, so some producers are selling vacuum-packed and frozen avocado pulp to restaurants in the Southwest.

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