Food Fight

Congress Begins A Battle Over Labeling Imported Produce.

ONCE AGAIN, erstwhile free trade warriors are dashing upon their own swords -- or at least their own toothpicks -- with ongoing attempts to squash Mexican produce imports.

It started a few years back, when a cabal of powerful domestic growers and their congressional lackeys managed to slap harsh tariffs on Mexican tomatoes. Now they're painting imported grapes as downright dangerous, and urging that all foreign-grown produce carry country-of-origin labeling on supermarket shelves.

The latter may sound innocuous enough, until you peel away layers of subterfuge to reveal the effort for what it is: a greed-driven crusade that could leave consumers feeling the bite. All brought to your market shelves by American agribusinesses that just love free trade -- so long as it doesn't shackle their own freedom to reap enormous profits.

Unfortunately, this ongoing food fight hits close to home, with billions of dollars and thousands of Arizona jobs hanging in the balance.

The current protectionist juggernaut kicked into high gear two years ago, when hepatitis-tainted Mexican strawberries infected 180 Michigan schoolchildren. Congress quickly responded with efforts to impose country-of-origin labels on all imported fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets. Backers say the labels would shield consumers from food raised abroad under questionable conditions, and spare domestic growers from sharing the blame for health scares like the strawberry scandal.

But importers say they already face the same stringent safety standards as domestic farmers, and that their goods are thoroughly checked at the border. Instead, they consider the labeling issue an attempt to squelch foreign competition, and drive up food costs for everyone.

For both sides, the stakes are enormous -- and growing. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, American produce consumption grew by 43 percent between 1980 and 1997, from 56 billion to nearly 80 billion pounds. During that same period, the amount of imported produce more than doubled, from 7.5 billion to 16 billion pounds, with most of the increase coming from Mexico, Canada and Chile.

By contrast, the market share for domestic growers has increased only by one third, from about 48 billion to 64 billion pounds.

Why the turnaround? Mexican importers claim a simple reason for their success: their produce simply tastes better.

Still, the anti-free trade offensive marches on. Among those leading the troops have been Rep. Mary Bono, a California Republican (continuing efforts by her late husband, Rep. Sonny Bono), and Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham. Last year, at least five bills addressed country-of-origin labeling on food ranging from meat to dairy products.

During the tomato battle in the mid-'90s, it was Graham who rushed to Nogales for a little spin control. The senator, a prime NAFTA backer when the accord was being debated, was suddenly caught midway through a political somersault.

"My position is not intended to be anti-NAFTA," he told a jangled crowd of Nogales produce brokers and importers in 1996. "We (the Florida congressional delegation) think it is NAFTA consistent."

Hard to figure how Graham is justifying his position this time, as he leads the Senate battle to impose on-the-shelf labeling requirements. He was unavailable for comment at press time.

Meanwhile, Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl have voiced their opposition to Graham's stance. According to a statement issued by his office, Kyl believes that "importers of Mexican produce should not be burdened with unfair trade barriers."

In a similar statement from McCain's office, the presidential hopeful finds "no justification for imposing this additional unfunded mandate on health grounds." Such trade restrictions, McCain says, "raise prices for consumers with no corresponding benefit in quality."

Nowhere is this trade fuss more closely watched than in Nogales, a bustling port where nearly $2 billion worth of tomatoes, grapes and other produce crosses into the United States from Mexico each year. The industry directly supports more than 3,200 local workers and their families. Another 2,500 jobs indirectly rely on import business in the town, and throughout Arizona.

Lee Frankel is president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, a Nogales-based trade group representing Mexican farmers and importers. "Ultimately, U.S. growers hope to play up different stereotypes of foreign countries," he says. "But virtually all the produce exported from Mexico meets the same standards as domestically grown produce."

Frankel says tightened labeling requirements would only raise retail prices, and incur greater monitoring costs for the government, which already spot-checks produce entering the country. Indeed, the GAO estimates that a labeling program could cost as much as $56 million annually, and be difficult to enforce.

But Tony Fazio, whose family-owned farms spread across central California's lush San Joaquin Valley, says drawing a sharp line between domestic and imported produce is crucial. "Then, if there is a pesticide scare, or a problem crops up in another country, domestic growers like us aren't lumped into that particular crisis."

To Fazio, fair trade is the real issue. "Governmental controls are quite different (between the United States and Mexico)," he says. "That means there are times when foreign producers have distinct advantages in terms of pesticides they can use, and in cheaper labor."

The result can be cutbacks for growers like himself. "It's hard to put a percentage on it," he says. "But as Mexico starts placing major amounts of product on the market, there are times we have to back off, because we can't afford to sell our product at below cost. And their production costs are much lower than ours."

Jay Taylor heads Taylor and Fulton, a major grower with farms dotting the southeastern United States. Like Fazio he called himself "100 percent free trade." In the same breath, he then describes how Mexican imports "have decimated growers in Florida. We as citizens have invested enormous amounts of money in growing wholesome food. And we're competing with countries like Mexico that can still use DDT, and where workers are paid as little as $8 a day."

On that last point -- cheap labor -- Taylor says he and other growers find themselves strange bedfellows with the very American unions they've long battled. "We now have the same interest," he says. "We're all on the same page."

But Marc Grossman, a Sacramento, California, based spokesman for the United Farm Workers, calls it absurd to think enormous domestic growers share the plight of poor field hands. "Growers have been using that same argument for a long time," he says. "But regardless, agribusiness in this country remains extremely profitable."

So does the import of Mexican crops, at least for the present. Mas Melons and Grapes of Nogales keenly reflects Mexico's growing share of the American market: started in 1997, the firm enjoyed more than $6.33 million in sales its first year. "And we expect to raise that to about $10 million this year," says manager Miguel Saurez.

Standing in a vast, chilly warehouse filled with purple table grapes, Saurez says increased labeling would do little to protect consumers. "To me, it's mostly just a governmental weapon."

If so, it remains a stealth weapon, at least where it matters most -- on store shelves. "Oh, we'll get a call asking about where a melon or a batch of tomatoes came from," says Joaquin Mar, manager of the 17th Street Farmers Market in Tucson. "But for our customers, it really doesn't seem to be an issue."

Mar says if country-of-origin labeling does become law, he'd expect packers to bear the burden of creating needed signs.

Inside the market, Miriam Stern is packing her cart with vegetables. "Sometimes I look to see if something is labeled," she says. "But I'm not a fanatic about it. As long as it looks fresh, it doesn't make much difference to me where it came from."

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