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U.S. spud leaders mull Mexico strategy

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

U.S. potato industry leaders are planning their legal strategy to respond to a Mexican judge's injunction to block the expansion of the Mexican market to fresh, U.S. potatoes.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. potato industry leaders are exploring legal options after a judge in Sinoloa, Mexico, restricted access to their fresh exports, and they’ll likely pursue USDA funding to support their market-restoration efforts.

Civil legal proceedings in Mexico aren’t public record as they are in the U.S. The American potato industry still hasn’t been allowed to view any court filings associated with the case, brought by the Mexican potato growers’ organization CONPAPA.

The U.S. potato industry and USDA negotiated for about a decade to open the full Mexican market to fresh, U.S. potatoes. Access had long been limited to within 26 kilometers of the U.S.-Mexico border to protect Mexican producers. But for a three-week period starting in late May, Mexico’s agricultural entity, SAGARPA, opened large cities south of the boundary to fresh U.S. imports.

The judge’s June 9 injunction effectively blocked fresh access to all of Mexico, until shipments were allowed to resume within the original 26-kilometer zone a couple of weeks later.

CONPAPA officials have publicly voiced phytosanitary concerns, said John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council. Complicating matters, Keeling said CONPAPA has filed seven additional cases against the trade expansion in multiple jurisdictions, and more judges have supported the injunction.

Keeling explained both the U.S. and Mexico agreed to abide by phytosanitary recommendations of a three-person international panel. Though the panel identified six pests of concern, CONPAPA has continued to assert the list should include more than 60 pests.

“There were appropriate mitigation measures for those (six) pests,” Keeling said.

Keeling said USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service views the issue as bigger than potatoes, concerned no U.S. commodity is safe if trade can be so easily and dramatically influenced.

He said NPC may apply through a USDA grant program for a yet-to-be-determined amount of assistance for a legal process that’s bound to move slowly, and has already seen several delays.

Keeling said NPC may hire attorneys in Mexico and hopes to obtain status to enter the case as an affected third party. He said Mexican potato importers who have been hurt by the injunction are also working to obtain third-party status. Keeling said one of the importers has already been denied third-party status, but he expects they’ll continue to “fine-tune their requests.”

For now, Keeling is pleased by reports that the listed plaintiff in the case, SAGARPA, is “vigorously pursuing overturning the injunction.”

U.S. Potato Board Chief Marketing Officer John Toaspern said USPB has staff in Mexico who will help monitor the situation. During the first 11 months of the 2014 marketing year, Toaspern said the volume of fresh U.S. spuds exported to Mexico decreased by 10 percent, but due to strong prices, the export value was nonetheless up by more than 20 percent.

APHIS estimates 15.5 million pounds of fresh U.S. spuds entered Mexico during the period when the market was expanded, but the agency kept no record of how many went beyond the 26-kilometer area.

Scott Nesbit, sales manager with Wahluke Produce in Mattawa, Wash., said during the brief fresh market expansion, his shipments to Mexico didn’t noticeably increase, but he received about double the usual inquiries from Mexican businesses.



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