The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has rejected a petition from lawmakers to conduct a Section 301 investigation into claims that U.S. fruits and vegetables are suffering from unfair imports flowing in from Mexico, but the Biden administration says it still wants to help U.S. farmers.

USTR said even though it “is not opening an investigation at this time,” it did promise to create an advisory panel to try to find some relief for Southern produce farmers.

“USTR will establish a private-sector industry advisory panel to recommend measures to promote the competitiveness of producers of seasonal and perishable produce in the southeastern United States,” the agency said in a statement Sunday. “USTR and USDA will work with the advisory panel and Members of Congress to develop possible administrative actions and legislation that would provide real benefits to this struggling industry.”

Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 can be used to levy tariffs on trading partners, and southern lawmakers like Florida’s Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott as well as a bipartisan list of 22 House members have been demanding USTR investigate and provide relief to fruit and vegetable farmers.

The lawmakers’ petition argues “Mexico poses a direct threat to Florida’s seasonal and perishable agricultural industry, endangers the long-term food security of the U.S., and raises the prospect that Mexico will become an unchallenged hegemon in the winter and spring fruit and vegetable supply chain, with the ability to set market prices that harm American consumers.”

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While the southern lawmakers’ petition was heartily supported by the Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, and Florida Strawberry Growers Association, nationwide farm groups like U.S. Grains Council, U.S. Wheat Associates, American Feed Industry Association, American Soybean Association and the Corn Refiners Association have warned that any new tariffs on Mexico would likely result in retaliation.

Mexico imported a record-breaking $25.5 billion worth of U.S. ag commodities like corn, dairy, wheat, beef and pork in 2021. Any disruption to that trade by a tariff war would have severe impacts on the U.S. ag sector, the national groups argued in an Oct. 5 letter to USTR Katherine Tai.

Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Roger Marshall, R-Kans., sent a letter to Tai last week, urging her to deny the Section 301 request. Not only would tariffs on Mexico spur retaliation, they would also “raise the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables during a time when Americans across the country are struggling with the increasing cost of food.”

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