By JOHN O'CONNELL
U.S. potato industry groups are preparing comments regarding the Mexican government's proposed policy changes on fresh potato imports, fearing they would worsen an existing trade disparity.
The U.S. potato industry has worked more than a decade to open the Mexican fresh potato export market beyond the current restriction of 16 miles from the border.
Many in the industry had been optimistic that a resolution was near due to Mexico's desire to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Furthermore, findings of an international panel of experts convened through the North American Plant Protection Organization confirmed Mexico should address only six potato pests of concern in importing from the U.S.
But in late November, the Mexican government proposed policy changes identifying more than 80 pests of concern, and opening its borders to fresh potatoes from other countries.
"There was no question the modifications to the original document were not conducive to promoting trade (with the U.S.)," said John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council. "It's still got a long way to go through their regulatory process."
Keeling remains hopeful that an agreement will be reached. He sees opportunity in the heightened focus on the issue and the election of a new Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto.
"We think the science is clear enough to facilitate trade and maintain appropriate mitigation measures to protect Mexico from pests of concern, which we believe are six, not 80," Keeling said. "This is a long war. It's going to have many battles."
A bipartisan group of 17 senators representing potato states -- including Idaho Republicans Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Washington Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell -- also sent a letter Dec. 21 to the Obama administration urging "science-based standards" in agricultural trade with Mexico.
"There is no reasonable objection that cannot be overcome for Idaho potatoes to be sold to our southern border neighbor," Risch said.
Seth Pemsler, retail/international vice president with the Idaho Potato Commission, believes the issue will eventually come to a positive resolution. He said IPC will continue attending Mexican trade shows and working with retailers there in preparation.
Washington Potato Commission Executive Director Chris Voigt admits he's frustrated that Mexico is "backtracking and changing midstream with what the initial intent was." He said Washington exports about 21,000 metric tons of fresh spuds into the 16-mile zone.
A letter WPC recently drafted for the Mexican public comment period notes Mexico exports $6.5 billion in fruits and vegetables to the U.S., compared with $550 million in U.S. fruit and vegetable imports.
"We respectfully request that Mexico move forward with regulations to allow for complete market access for U.S. potatoes and to utilize the recommendation from the NAPPO mediation panel's findings, which truly incorporates international trading principles and sound science as a means to allow for the safe export of U.S. fresh potatoes to Mexico," the WPC letter reads.