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Fruit, Vegetable Imports Up Sharply, GAO Says

Times Staff Writer

Aided by lower production costs and a rising dollar, foreign producers of fruits and vegetables have seized a dramatically larger share of the U.S. market this decade, the government said Tuesday in a report sure to feed debate over trade protectionism.

Fruit imports tripled in value from 1980 to 1986, while vegetable imports doubled, with the fastest growth coming for imported orange juice, table grapes, broccoli and tomatoes, according to a new study by the General Accounting Office.

The GAO report said the trend has helped consumers get cheaper and more varied produce.

But at a House hearing unveiling the report, some members of Congress, which is under pressure from agricultural and labor leaders to step up government protection of U.S. growers, signaled alarm over the safety of the imported produce and the loss of a competitive edge at home.

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“I’m very supersensitive to setting off a trade war,” said Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.), a member of the Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on domestic marketing. “But unless we take some steps to show our real intent” to protect U.S. producers, “I’m afraid we won’t get results.”

At the hearing, fruit and vegetable producers, packers and labor leaders from California and other agricultural states urged Congress to “even out” a playing field that they say is now tipped toward imported produce. Some asked for tariffs on imports or limits on foreign market share. The trade bill approved recently by Congress, which is expected to be vetoed by President Reagan, does not include such measures.

Latin American growers and their distributors insisted that they are following all government rules and simply meeting a demand by U.S. consumers.

The GAO report showed that imports of fruits and vegetables have been increasing much faster than agricultural imports overall. The value of agricultural goods from foreign countries jumped 21% from 1980 to 1986, while fruit imports rose to $1.6 billion from $482 million and vegetable imports to $1.6 billion from $738 million.

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The foreign share of fresh and frozen fruit sales in the United States increased to 33% in 1986 from 26% in 1980. Processed vegetable imports climbed to a 5.4% market share from 1.3%, and fresh vegetables to 7% from 5%.

Imported frozen concentrated orange juice, which made up just 14% of the U.S. market in 1980, had claimed 54% by 1986. Imported table grapes and processed broccoli, cauliflower and tomatoes also won significantly larger shares of the domestic market, the study said.

Explaining the trend, GAO senior associate director Brian P. Crowley cited several factors that give foreign producers an edge. They included lower production costs in countries such as Mexico, where producers can hire workers for $3 a day; subsidies by foreign governments; the rise in the dollar’s exchange rate in fruit- and vegetable-producing countries, and better weather.

“Our growers find themselves in somewhat of a dilemma,” said California Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), who heads the House domestic marketing panel and requested the GAO study. “Their domestic markets are eroded by imports from other countries and export markets are often foreclosed by (other nations’) import restrictions, or foreign prices kept artificially low because of subsidies.”

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Panetta also expressed concern that produce from some foreign countries that have less stringent controls on pesticide use may not be “safe to eat.” A provision sponsored by Panetta in the trade bill now before Reagan would toughen Food and Drug Administration border inspections. He said that he also expects his panel to look at requiring country-of-origin labeling on products.

But disgruntled U.S. agriculture and labor leaders appealed to the congressional panel to go even farther, starting with tougher tariffs.

Sergio Lopez, a Teamsters Union official from Watsonville, Calif., said: “We need our government’s help. If measures are not adopted to at least preserve the remaining surviving part of the frozen food industry, it will cease to exist and we will all be dependent on and eating imported . . . vegetables from countries where there is no control of either the product’s quality or its safety.”

Added Dante John Nomellini, counsel to the California Asparagus Assn.: “Importers are allowed to reap substantial profits while forcing our growers and domestic processors out of business and our workers out of jobs.”

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