Pork producers urge President Obama to take action

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

Pork groups are trying to pressure the Obama administration into resolving a trade dispute with Mexico that has resulted in 5 percent tariffs on most U.S. pork sent there.

The government responds that it is drafting a plan to do just that.

The National Pork Producers Council and 36 state pork organizations have sent a letter urging President Barack Obama to work with Congress and Mexico to eliminate the duties.

Frustrations among agricultural groups have been mounting since mid-August, when Mexico shifted tariffs on a number of products. The tariffs are in retaliation for the suspension of a pilot program that allowed Mexican trucks to travel U.S. highways.

The expanded list now includes several valuable Western crops, including apples, oranges, pistachios and cheese. Of the 99 items now on the list, 54 are farm-related.

"Five percent isn't a lot, but certainly it's going to have some negative effect given that probably our two biggest competitors there -- Canada and Chile -- have zero tariffs on their products," said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council.

The NPPC and other farm groups agree with Mexico's assertion that the U.S. hasn't lived up to its obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement, under which the U.S. was supposed to begin allowing Mexican trucks into the country in 1995.

In their letter, the pork groups noted that U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico have increased by 257 percent since 1993, the year before NAFTA was implemented, and pork exports have grown by 580 percent.

The group's pleas come as the looming congressional elections may be preventing Congress and the administration from addressing the politically thorny issue of allowing Mexican trucks into the country, which the Teamsters Union and many Americans oppose.

Washington's congressional delegation has been perhaps the most vocal on the issue, with Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell both urging Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to develop a plan to let the trucks roll.

While last year's omnibus spending bill prohibited funds from being spent on a program to allow Mexican trucks access to U.S. highways, the fiscal 2010 appropriations bill contains no such restriction, notes John Diamond, Cantwell's communications director.

"The office of the United States Trade Representative has indicated to Sen. Cantwell that it has drafted a new plan to allow Mexican trucks into the United States in line with NAFTA requirements," Diamond said in an e-mail.

"We believe that plan should be implemented as soon as possible so the situation can be resolved and the tariffs on Washington state agricultural products can be removed," he said.

The program will seek to address safety concerns about Mexican trucks while upholding America's NAFTA commitments and "working with Congress is key," said Nkenge Harmon, a spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

Warner said the NPPC and others have been hearing that LaHood was working on a proposal since March, which is why Mexico waited until August before adding to its tariff list.

"After six months they said, 'OK, we've got nothing,' so I think that's why they updated the list then," Warner said.

"I don't think we can criticize the administration for a lack of response since mid-August," he said. "But I think we would be less than pleased with their response from really March of 2009. We weren't on that original list, but it's not helpful to the agricultural community at large or the other U.S. businesses to have tariffs on their products, which means they lose money. They could lose jobs, and that's certainly the case for the pork industry, too."

Online

National Pork Producers Council: www.nppc.org

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