Apr 29, 2021
Mexico court ruling clears major hurdle for U.S. potato producers, but maybe not the last

On April 28, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled unanimously to overturn a lower court’s ruling that prohibited the sale of U.S.-grown fresh potatoes beyond 26 kilometers of the border. 

Full fresh potato access to Mexico would be worth tens of millions of dollars to U.S. producers each year in the short term. The potential is even higher.

US Mexico flagsThe Supreme Court’s ruling is a major milestone in a two-decade-long battle for U.S. potato growers for fresh access to all of Mexico that has taken unexpected twists and turns. Most notably, in 2014, after the Mexican government made complete fresh access to Mexico available for the U.S., a group of Mexican potato growers sued the government to overturn that decision and won. The U.S. potato industry, led by the National Potato Council (NPC), with support from multiple U.S. and Mexican administrations, has been pushing to regain that access ever since. In fact, Wednesday’s ruling was actually on appellate cases by the Mexican government. 

On the surface, the ruling would seem to be a successful end to that crusade. It may not be that simple, however. 

In response to Wednesday’s ruling, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the decision puts U.S. fresh potatoes “one step closer to fully gaining access to Mexico.” He later added: “We look forward to resuming bilateral technical engagements to finalize import requirements as soon as possible.”

Kam Quarles, National Potato Council CEO, speaks during the NPC’s 2020 meeting, as Jared Balcom, Vice President of the Trade Affairs Committee, listens.

NPC CEO Kam Quarles doesn’t feel the timetable to finalize the import requirements should be a long one because requirements from 2014, when the U.S. briefly had full fresh access before the court overturned it, provide all the framework.

“It’s not like when a new commodity is asking for access to a country that it’s never shipped to before,” Quarles said. “The regulatory process … Mexico has already done all of that. They just need to reinstate the access we previously had.”

While the Mexican government and court system are in agreement on U.S. fresh potato access, there is the matter of the association that originally sued the government to block access — CONPAPA, which the NPC has referred to as a “potato cartel.” 

When asked about a timeline when shipping of fresh potatoes throughout Mexico might start to happen, Quarles said: “It won’t be days, it’ll be months. But, if we’re here six months from now and still haven’t been provided with that access, it will be because the oligarchs are supplying political pressure.” 

“People shouldn’t underestimate the oligarchs who make up this cartel. They are incredibly powerful both in terms of financial resources and political capital, and I think they’re only going to increase their efforts. We are trying to stay positive, however.”

While Quarles expressed concern of possible delays, he is optimistic of a successful outcome for the U.S. potato industry due to the “unwavering” support of Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. 

Another reason for Quarles’ confidence is the longstanding link between more access for U.S. potato producers with increased access for Mexican avocado producers. 

“Mexico does want something out of this — expanded avocado access,” Quarles said. “That is the relationship. Potatoes and avocados are going to rise and fall together. 

“Their avocados are going to benefit, but only with our potato exports.”

— Zeke Jennings, managing editor

RELATED: Other recent stories on U.S.-Mexico fresh potatoes situation

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