A food fight is brewing between Florida and other states over what may seem the unlikeliest of reasons.
Americans love the red, vine-ripened fruit (yes, tomatoes are a fruit, though the Supreme Court ruled them a vegetable for regulatory purposes), eating 600 million each year.
Some of those tomatoes are grown in Florida, where the Florida Tomato Exchange (FTE) is asking the Department of Commerce to step in and reduce the flow of tomatoes grown in Mexico. Florida farmers don’t like the competition, and they’re in a stew over it.
They want the Biden administration to terminate the Tomato Suspension Agreement (TSA), a 2019 deal that ensures producers sell Mexican tomatoes at or above the TSA reference price to “eliminate the injurious effects of exports of fresh tomatoes to the United States.” According to the Florida Tomato Exchange, the TSA does not work and instead keeps Mexico from facing any retribution for dumping tomatoes onto the United States.
Michael Schadler, executive vice president of the FTE, wrote, “All five suspension agreements over the last 27 years have failed. They haven’t stopped Mexican tomatoes from being dumped in the U.S. market and haven’t stopped injury to the U.S. industry.”
Not so fast, says the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA). It warns tomato prices will jump 50 percent if the TSA is changed or done away with and anti-dumping duties are imposed on tomatoes imported from Mexico. And the Commerce Department’s initial assessments suggest the implicated Mexican tomato exporters adhere to the current trade agreement.
The real issue is protectionism, critics say, which results in higher consumer prices in places like Arizona. Political and business leaders in the Grand Canyon State are telling Florida farmers to simmer down.
“You have a group of Florida tomato producers who obviously want to expand their business, which is great, and we’re all for that. But what they are proposing would hurt Arizona’s trade with Mexico,” said Mike Huckins, senior vice president of public affairs and IT operations at the Greater Phoenix Chamber. “We import, at least through Arizona, a lot of tomatoes from the Mexican side of the border along with a number of other things, with Mexico being our largest trade partner.”
For border states like Arizona, tomatoes aren’t just a culinary staple but a substantial agricultural import and economic driver. A comprehensive study by economists affiliated with Arizona State University forecasts potential multi-billion-dollar revenue losses for retailers nationwide if the TSA is terminated. In a worst-case scenario, annual economic activity in Arizona could drop by upward of $3 billion, putting more than 22,000 retail, distribution, warehouse and transportation jobs at risk.
Those predictions, if realized, would reverberate through Arizona’s economic and employment sectors. Speaking in defense of the current trade agreement, Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said, “If the administration opts to terminate this agreement, it will cause significant economic damage to countless communities in Arizona, Texas and beyond, while also sending tomato prices skyrocketing for consumers across the country at a time when many American families are already struggling with the cost of living.”
Florida politicians aren’t backing down.
In September, 59 members of Congress, including Florida senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott (Republicans) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, asked the commerce secretary to terminate the TSA. Those opposing the TSA claim the termination and imposition of anti-dumping duties is “necessary to stop the destruction of the American tomato industry by unfairly traded Mexican tomatoes.”
That same month, a bipartisan group of 34 members of Congress — including Arizona senators Kyrsten Sinema (an independent) and Mark Kelly (a Democrat) and Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz (both Republicans) — sent their own letter urging the administration to uphold the current agreement. They argued the Department of Commerce should act based on empirical data, not the political interests of organizations like the FTE.
“Imports of fresh tomatoes from Mexico are among the most heavily scrutinized U.S. imports of any kind, and the 2019 TSA is working as Commerce intended,” they wrote. “As of May 2023, USDA has completed 250,000 inspections and found that over 99 percent of shipments comply with the terms of the 2019 TSA.”
Opponents of TSA repeal have also cooked up another argument that might appeal to the administration: presidential politics. They note inflation is already a problem for Biden, and anything that drives food prices even higher — like keeping less-expensive tomatoes from Mexico off store shelves — isn’t going to help. Add the fact that the three swing states of Arizona, Nevada and Georgia have significant Hispanic populations, where tomatoes are a staple of many families’ daily diets, and this protectionist move may leave a bad taste in voters’ mouths.
Huckins, with the Greater Phoenix Chamber, and his fellow Arizonans hope something can be worked out besides the “nuclear route” of TSA override that has been proposed. Because if the TSA is terminated, Huckins said people will see an increase in their grocery bills.
“The Florida tomatoes are selling at a little more expensive rate than the ones coming in from Mexico,” he says. “If they weren’t, this would not be an issue, so if this proposal were to go through, and you either get your tomatoes from Florida exclusively or if the tariff is in place, which is going to make the ones coming in from Mexico that much more expensive, you’re likely in whatever state you’re living in likely to pay more for your tomatoes.
“Given the issues that we’ve had with inflation, I don’t think that’s something that anybody is going to be looking forward to or would like to see.”