U.S., MEXICO TOMATO SUIT IS RESOLVED

WASHINGTON -- Answering pleas of the Florida tomato-growing community, the U.S. Department of Commerce and Mexican tomato producers settled an antidumping suit.For more than a quarter century, Florida growers alleged that Mexican tomato producers have been selling their products in the United States below market value, which culminated in a suit filed against them last April.Following Commerce Department

WASHINGTON -- Answering pleas of the Florida tomato-growing community, the U.S. Department of Commerce and Mexican tomato producers settled an antidumping suit.

For more than a quarter century, Florida growers alleged that Mexican tomato producers have been selling their products in the United States below market value, which culminated in a suit filed against them last April.

Following Commerce Department investigations of Mexican growers, a settlement between Mexican and U.S. officials sets a minimum price at which Mexican growers may export their products -- no less than 20.68 cents per pound, or about $5.17 per 25 pounds.

"I think it's a win-win situation," said Wayne Hawkins, executive vice president of Florida Tomato Exchange, Orlando, Fla.

"Hopefully, it will assure the consumer of a [quality] product on both sides."

Initial speculation says the limit will cause tomato prices to skyrocket, because retailers will have to pay more for their products, but Florida officials say this will even the playing field.

Hawkins said it may affect prices during the first year, but believes the move has the potential to stabilize cost and offer a greater uniformity to consumers.

While the move should help domestic growers, Hawkins believes it still doesn't go far enough, noting the Mexican price is still below that of some of the major domestic tomato-producing regions.

Hawkins said Florida growers move their products at about $6.50 per 25-pound unit, and California tomatoes sell at about $5.25 for the same amount.

But Frankel defends Mexico's position, saying they have stayed above cost.

"We look at our average selling price for the season; it's way above even the most inflated cost estimates," he said.

McElroy said Mexican imports were coming in as low as $2 and $3 per 25-pound box last year, well below market cost. "Florida growers couldn't grow and pick at that price."

Officials from the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., declined to comment on the situation.