Dec 9, 2020
Query: Blueberry imports’ impact

U.S. blueberry growers, importers and purchasers – as well as foreign growers and exporters – on Nov. 16 turned in questionnaires that will play an important role in an investigation into the international trade of fresh, chilled and frozen blueberries.

While those individual questionnaires are confidential, they’re part of a process that will include a Feb. 11 vote by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) on whether “increased imports of blueberries have caused serious injury or threat thereof to domestic blueberry growers,” using the USITC’s language.

The commission will send a report to the White House on March 29, 2021. If it finds domestic growers are being hurt by imports, the USITC may recommend remedies such as an increase in duty or imposition of a quota.

Background

The Section 201 global safeguard investigation was requested Sept. 29, 2020, by U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer who referenced the Report on Seasonal and Perishable Products in U.S. Commerce jointly released by USTR, the USDA and the Department of Commerce.

The report included testimony by several Southeastern growers about how imports were affecting their business.

“Florida blueberry growers continue to experience undue hardship as a result of Mexico’s unfair trading practices,” said Brittany Lee, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. “My family farm is well on its way to becoming a casualty of this and eventually it will be the reason that my family business and others are forced out of commercial production.”

On the other side of the issue, testimony in the report defended Mexican blueberry trade practices.

“For decades, the Southeast has continued to use outright falsehoods and misleading rhetoric such as unfair trade or unfair subsidies in an attempt to paint themselves as victims and draw sympathy,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Arizona-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. “Florida and Georgia growers present policy briefings that are misleading and inaccurate and have been challenged by academics and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

While individual growers and a few trade groups have strong opinions on the investigation, major industry groups have declined to take a stance.

In a joint statement in late September, the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) and North American Blueberry Council (NABC) said they would “continue to fight for the short-term viability of our members and the long-term future success of our industry” while not being party to the investigation. “USHBC is prohibited from engaging in any efforts for the purpose of influencing government action or policy, and for that reason, it is not authorized to participate in the 201 investigation,” according to the statement. NABC, “established in 1965 to unite trading partners throughout North America and ensure a vibrant and healthy blueberry industry,” said it “will not be taking a stand on the 201 issue, but will continue aggressively working with the U.S. government on programs to help domestic growers better compete moving forward.”

Going forward

A webinar held by the American Frozen Foods Institute (AFFI) and the USHBC included USITC investigators and economists to informally describe how the investigation would proceed.

Alison Bodor

“While both organizations remain neutral on the pending 201 investigation by the ITC, (USHBC and NABC President Kasey Cronquist) and I both felt it would be valuable for all of us to learn more about this type of investigation and what to expect as it proceeds,” said Alison Bodor, president and CEO of AFFI.

Doug Corkran, supervisory investigator, USITC, said the nature of the investigation was somewhat different than the trade “dumping” cases that have been more common.

“Our agency does a lot of anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations – they deal with allegations of unfair trade,” Corkran said. “A global safeguard investigation – even if it has some procedural similarities to antidumping and countervailing duty investigations, does not involve an allegation of unfair trade.” Rather, it’s an investigation of whether increased imports are simply causing injury to a domestic industry – in this case, U.S. blueberry growers.

USITC investigator Jordan Harriman said the survey would consider public information – such as import statistics, USDA data on production, storage, price and movement, and equivalent data from other countries on production and shipments. That data comes in addition to the questionnaires completed by growers, importers, major purchasers, exporters and associated growers, he said. While individual questionnaires are confidential, aggregate data from the questionnaires is generally public.

See more news from the blueberry industry››

Key dates in the investigation schedule include a USITC public vote on injury on Feb. 11, 2021, and, if there is a finding of injury, a March 19 vote on a remedy.

The USITC may recommend remedies such as an increase in duty, imposition of a quota, trade adjustment assistance, or even imposition of a tariff-rate quota – such as a two-level tariff, under which goods enter at a higher duty after the quota is filled, officials said during the informal webinar. The president makes a final decision on whether to provide a remedy, and if so, the type and duration of the remedy – it cannot be longer than four years, and can’t be extended to a total of more than eight years.

“We have a statutory timetable for the case, and we will deliver the (USITC) commission’s decisions, and any recommendations that it has, to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Corkran said.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor


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