Guest column: U.S. must aid tomato growers in trade dispute with Mexico

For the past few decades the United States tomato industry has been under attack by the unfair trading practices of the Mexican tomato industry.

It has been an established tenet of American trade regulations that foreign industries are not allowed to sell products into the United States below their cost of production.

Such unfair practices often result in the domestic suppliers being forced out of business.

In 1996, the U.S. tomato industry brought a dumping action against the Mexican tomato industry to end their practice of selling tomatoes into the United States below their cost of production. A settlement was reached that resulted in the Suspension Agreement, which has been in place for the last 16 years.

According to the terms of the Suspension Agreement, Mexican growers were forbidden from shipping into the United States at prices below 21 cents per pound.

Over the past 16 years, the Mexican tomato growers have continued to ship tomatoes into the United States market at prices far below their cost of production. The target rate of 21 cents per pound would be 42 cents per pound if adjusted for inflation.

The dumping of Mexican tomatoes into the U.S. market has resulted in numerous American family farms being forced to close because they could not compete with Mexican growers.

During this time period, tomato acreage in Florida has decreased by nearly 40 percent while Mexican tomato acreage has increased by approximately 300 percent.

The U.S. Commerce Department, which was charged with enforcing the Suspension Agreement, has been unable to halt the Mexican unfair trading practices. In order for American tomato growers to pursue a unfair trade practice claim against the Mexican growers, the Commerce Department must lift the Suspension Agreement.

A domestic agriculture industry is a major component of a strong national defense. The U.S. tomato industry is heavily regulated and as a result supplies vegetables that are safe for consumption by our families.

In Manatee County, the tomato industry is a creator of many primary and contingent jobs that pour millions of dollars into our economy. Additionally, over the past decades the tomato industry has been a strong financial supporter of numerous local charitable institutions.

The U.S. industry is not afraid of fair competition with Mexico. We know we can compete with their low wages by the efficiencies we have in our production practices.

Unfair competition, however, will result in a single foreign supply for our nations' vegetable consumption. This is not the American way.

The U.S. tomato industry -- which comprises growers from Florida to New Jersey, from Tennessee to California -- has joined together in this fight.

We call upon Francisco Sanchez, a Florida native and President Obama's point man on the issue, to allow the Suspension Agreement to be lifted.

Bob Spencer, is the president of Palmetto-based West Coast Tomato and vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, a trade association.