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Mexico closes border to U.S. fresh spuds

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

After only three weeks of expanded access to fresh U.S. potatoes, Mexico has closed its borders, based on a legal filing by its growers.

A Mexican court has blocked the shipment of U.S. fresh potatoes into the country, just three weeks following the enactment of an agreement significantly expanding access to the market.

U.S. fresh spud shipments had long been restricted to a zone extending 26 kilometers below the U.S.-Mexico border to protect domestic growers. On May 19, the Mexican government opened the entire country to fresh, U.S. potatoes.

But on June 9, a Mexican judge granted an injunction sought by the Mexican potato growers organization, CONPAPA, to restrict shipments.

“Two days ago we received word from (USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) that CONPAPA filed a lawsuit against its agricultural department. In response, they closed all points of entry for U.S. potatoes,” said National Potato Council spokesman Mark Szymanski.

Terrance Wells, APHIS export specialist for Canada and Mexico, said CONPAPA’s complaints are based on the trade expansion.

Though APHIS will issue no new phytosanitary  certificates allowing shipments anywhere into Mexico until further notice, the agency announced a plan June 11 to address the glut of trucks stuck at the border.

Wells said phytosanitary certificates would be reissued to allow access to stopped trucks intended for buyers within the original 26-kilometer zone. Owners of delayed shipments bound further south were also permitted a new certificate upon finding buyers within the 26-kilometer zone.

Wells said 275 phytosanitary certificates have been issued for truckloads of spuds bound for Mexico since May 19.

“We want full access, not just the 26 kilometers. We both agreed we had that,” Wells said.

Idaho Potato Commissioner Lynn Wilcox had seven truckloads of potatoes waiting to enter Mexico, some of which were bound for Monterrey, well beyond the 26-kilometer boundary.

“Our potential loss, it’s $50,000 pretty easily,” said Wilcox, with the Rexburg, Idaho, growing and shipping company Wilcox Fresh. “I get very frustrated that the U.S. doesn’t have more teeth in the agreement.”

Scott Nesbit, sales manager with Wahluke Produce in Mattawa, Wash., had a dozen trucks help up at the border in California. Nesbit’s shipments encountered problems even before the border was officially closed. He was informed the waiting period for trucks arriving June 4 would be extended beyond the standard 24 hours. Those trucks never made it across before the border closed.

“It’s been a real fiasco,” said Nesbit, adding he incurred costs designing special 20-pound packaging to meet revised Mexican weight limits. “Most of the warehouses in Mexicali are bone dry. They all need potatoes, and they haven’t been able to get in.”

Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, considers it fortunate that the problem stems from Mexican growers and not the government, itself, but he worries about the power of a single judge to shut down international trade.

“I think if you look at the behavior of Mexico on fresh potatoes for the past 10 years, it’s like they have a playbook. They’re always trying to throw in some type of wrench to slow things down,” Voigt said. “I think it’s time the U.S. looks at retaliating.”



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