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FPAA: Misleading claims from the Florida Tomato Exchange don’t add up

Banner for the Tomato Suspension Agreement with tomatoes and the US and Mexico flags.

PRESS RELEASE Nogales, AZ-In a recent rebuttal by Michael Schadler of the Florida Tomato Exchange regarding a letter to members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee by Mexican Senator Gustavo Madero, we at the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas BB #:144354 see a continuing pattern of innuendo and deception from the folks in Florida.

It follows a pattern of propaganda that is heavy on hyperbole and short on facts, evidence, and truth. For the past three years the Florida Tomato Exchange (FTE) has stayed on message, repeating its claims of Mexico’s unfair trading practices, illegal government subsidies, dumping of tomatoes on the US market, worker mistreatment, and more without backing up their accusations with evidence of any kind.

Let’s begin with some facts that the FTE has conveniently omitted when talking about tomato production in Mexico vs. Florida.
• A major contributing factor is Mexico simply has better growing weather for tomatoes than Florida does. Mexico does not have the kind of hurricanes that Florida does. The Mexican growing areas do not have the subtropical climate that south Florida does, along with the increased pest pressures that require a lot more pesticide applications than tomatoes from Mexico or California. Unlike the FTE, we offer more than hearsay or anecdotal evidence, including the link to a University of Florida study that outlines what a challenge it is to grow tomatoes in Florida.
• Mexico has a stronger agricultural workforce than Florida. This fact is uncontested. It’s true that farmworkers in Mexico make less than farmworkers in the US but the cost of living is less as well. Mexico has strict labor laws that include not just wage regulations, but they also include healthcare for every worker. That is not the case in Florida tomato fields.
• Mexico produces mostly vine-ripened tomatoes, unlike Florida which produces industrial gassed green tomatoes. Consumers prefer vine-ripened tomatoes and the evidence shows in your grocery stores. Look and you will see an assortment of tomatoes on the vine, heirloom tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, and shade house grown tomatoes that far outnumber open field grown gassed green tomatoes from Florida. Why? They taste better.
• In Florida, tomatoes are picked when they are mature but not ripe. This means that they still have a way to go before Mother Nature finishes up with the final flavor components, acidity (this is where that tomato tang comes from), and more. The Florida growers then put these green tomatoes into gas rooms and gas them with ethylene to get them to turn red. They call this process “de-greening”. They used to call it ripening but the government put a stop to that misleading claim. This is the way that tomatoes were grown a hundred years ago but Mexico turned to vine-ripened tomatoes about a half-century ago and had a steep learning curve before they overcame soft tomatoes, shorter shelf life, and other challenges but they finally got it right and consumers flocked to their products. Florida tomato growers claim that there is no difference, repeating this ad nauseum to politicians, but clearly American consumers disagree, or we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

The FTE claims that Mexican tomato growers receive “illegal” subsidies and that is why they have taken so much market share away from Florida tomatoes.
• Mexico has had programs to promote agriculture, but they are small and nothing like our USDA programs. To the contrary, US government assistance to agriculture dwarfs anything that Mexico could possibly do.

The FTE ignores development trends and grower consolidation to paint an inaccurate picture of farm closures.
• The FTE stated, “What about the hundreds of American tomato farmers that were forced out of business during the 22-year duration of the old suspension agreement, along with the assorted loss of jobs and tax revenue in America’s rural economy.” Again, we would ask for something to back this up. Many tomato producers in Florida took advantage of the real estate boom during the time in question. Many others were bought out by larger Florida tomato companies.
• Most importantly, Florida growers failed to see the rest of the agricultural world evolving into the 21st century and got passed by. Now they are crying foul. They are mostly producing flavorless tomatoes that consumers have abandoned, and they are trying to use politics to maintain an outmoded business model.
Another thing FTE fails to mention is Mexican tomato imports are an important economic driver for U.S. companies and job creation.
• Mexican tomatoes account for 33,000 US jobs earning $1.4 billion in employee compensation, $353 million in business owner income, and $801 million in corporate profits and other returns. This totals $2.9 billion in GDP that is directly and indirectly supported by the value chain delivering imported fresh tomatoes from Mexico to US and US consumers through grocery retail and foodservice industries. Over $400 million in federal tax revenue was generated through direct and multiplier effects and nearly $350 million was generated in state and local tax revenues in 2016.5
Michael Schadler of the FTE accuses Mexico of threatening to derail the USMCA and tries to use other antidumping cases as analogies.
• The Chicago Tribune said just the opposite in 2017. Schadler cites 22 antidumping and countervailing duty cases between the US and Mexico but leaves out the fact that tomatoes are the only fresh item involved and only one other perishable item (chicken legs, thighs, and drumsticks which can be frozen) and this is an extremely important fact. Antidumping laws were made for steel and they do not have any codicils to deal with fresh perishable products. As such, the FTE is using US antidumping laws in ways that were never intended.
We strongly agree that US farmers must be protected but the FTE actions go well beyond the intent of the law.
• They are attempting to create a seasonal monopoly to force their products onto the American public to make up for their lack of foresight and innovation. In short, they are trying to regulate their way to profitability.

In closing, the FTE is trying to create a seasonal monopoly on tomatoes because they are finding it difficult to compete largely because of their lack of innovation.
• The costs of this, if the FTE gets its way, will be borne less by the Mexican tomato growers and more by American consumers who will see increased prices, less variety and quality, and inconsistent supplies from a single growing area located in the heart of Hurricane Alley.

By using faulty arguments to bolster their political position, FTE risks harming a U.S.-Mexico relationship that more than ever requires trust and strong bilateral cooperation.

Contact: Lance Jungmeyer, 520-287-2707