Some farm groups are attacking a federal investigation into whether U.S. blueberry growers are being seriously harmed by an increasing volume of imported berries.
The probe, requested by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and funded by blueberry growers, could undercut the new North American trade pact and invite retaliatory tariffs, according to 32 farms groups and food companies.
American Blueberry Growers Alliance attorney Stephen Orava said blueberry farmers are pursuing an investigation authorized by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, as well as U.S. and international trade laws.
“It’s important to have this objective, legal process proceed,” he said Monday. “This is a process both Canada and Mexico have agreed to.”
Lighthizer asked for the Section 201 investigation by the U.S. International Trade Commission in late September. The commission is collecting confidential records to determine whether an influx of foreign blueberries threatens the future of the domestic industry.
If so, the president could enact safeguard tariffs. A report to the White House is due March 29. President Trump has ordered safeguard tariffs against imported washing machines and solar cells and modules during his presidency.
In a Dec. 9 letter to Lighthizer, the farm and food organizations said they had “strong concerns” about the blueberry investigation, as well as fact-finding probes into imported cucumbers, squash, strawberries and bell peppers, which could lead to safeguard investigations.
The groups warned that protective trade actions “without legitimate cause” could set a precedent and lead to escalating retaliatory measures.
“As our industry continues to recover from COVID-19 related market shocks and supply chain disruptions, the last thing we can afford at this point is additional uncertainty and higher tariffs,” the groups stated.
Organizations signing the letter included major trade groups representing soybeans, wheat, corn, pork, dairy and poultry. Companies that signed on included Driscoll’s and the Hershey Co.
Efforts to obtain comment from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative were unsuccessful.
The blueberry investigation requested by Lighthizer is already well underway. President-elect Joe Biden has picked Katherine Tai, a trade lawyer, to succeed Lighthizer in his administration.
Orava said the farm groups’ concerns are exaggerated and premature. Trade laws recognize the need to keep domestic industries from being devastated, he said.
“The countries well understand the importance of these safety valves in trade agreements,” he said. “For food security, it’s better to grow food locally than rely on imports.”
While the farm groups and food companies criticized the investigation, an equal number of federal lawmakers, 32, sent a letter last week to the trade commission supporting the probe.
The lawmakers included Washington Republican Dan Newhouse and Democrats Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen. Oregon Democrats Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader also signed. Washington and Oregon are the top blueberry-producing states in the U.S.
The lawmakers said more imported blueberries, particularly from Chile, Peru, Mexico, Argentina and Canada, have depressed prices to U.S. farmers.
“As the commission develops the evidentiary record in this case, we believe it will be clear that imports are a substantial cause of serious injury to the domestic blueberry industry,” the lawmakers wrote.
The countries named by the lawmakers have indicated they will submit comments to U.S. investigators.