Washington raspberry growers eye trade practices

Red raspberries hang from the cane. The Washington Red Raspberry Commission has hired a law firm to look into growers' concerns that foreign competitors are selling berries below the cost of production.

The Washington Red Raspberry Commission has retained a law firm to look into whether foreign competitors are harming U.S. growers with unfair trade practices.

The commission’s executive director, Henry Bierlink, said the group has not identified any particular country or practice, but farmers are seeing prices in the past few months “dramatically” below the cost of their production.

The commission also is looking at a rarely used U.S. trade law that allows the president to take action to safeguard domestic industries, even in cases where the U.S. has not documented unfair practices. The law has not been invoked since 2002.

Bierlink said that the commission would be pursuing information about competitors’ trade practices in any event, but growers are mindful of President Donald Trump’s comments and early actions on trade.

“The rhetoric from our current president suggests there may be a different approach,” he said.

“We’re not jumping into things. We’re letting it be known we’re aware of tools,” Bierlink said. “We will use them if we need to.”

The commission represents about 120 growers, with approximately 90 percent of them concentrated in Whatcom County in northwest Washington. The state produces more red raspberries for processing than any other.

The growers compete in the U.S. market with raspberries from other countries, including Canada, Chile and Serbia. In the past three decades, the commission has twice successfully petitioned for trade sanctions against foreign competitors.

Bierlink said that Washington growers have not yet been harmed by low prices. The commission hired the Washington, D.C., legal firm King & Spalding about six weeks ago to review data, he said.

The law firm represented red raspberry growers in a case against Chile in 2002. The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled that Chile was dumping individually quick frozen berries into the U.S., driving prices below the cost of production in the U.S. The Department of Commerce imposed duties on Chilean imports.

In 1984, the trade commission ruled several British Columbia red raspberry importers were undermining U.S. growers. Canadian growers were aided by a provincial insurance program that made up the difference between low market prices and the cost of production, according to the trade commission’s report.

Besides looking at whether foreign competitors are dumping berries or enjoying government subsidies, the law firm will help the commission determine whether to seek help under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974.

The provision allows the president to provide relief if the trade commission finds increased imports are seriously damaging an industry.

The law was last used in 2002 by President George W. Bush to safeguard the steel industry. The World Trade Organization overturned the order the following year. Previously, the law had been invoked 18 other times, providing safeguards to products such as lamb meat, wheat gluten and mushrooms, according to the Georgetown Journal of International Law.

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