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California and the West

Avocado Bill Could Be Green Light for Battle

Agriculture: Plan calls for assessment on sales to fund ad campaign. Foreign growers vow fight, saying they would be paying to promote California's industry.

October 23, 2000|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the final days of its legislative session, Congress is dealing with issues of great national importance: foreign policy, education, social services--and avocados.

Legislation designed to aid California's avocado industry was slipped into an agriculture spending bill, but it threatens to set off an international trade dispute.

The spending bill, expected to be signed soon by President Clinton, would authorize an assessment on avocados sold in the United States to fund a national ad campaign, essentially designed to get people to eat more of the fruit.

Simple enough, right?

No, say officials from avocado-producing Chile, Mexico and New Zealand, who are--well, in the pits--over the legislation. They contend that it is unfair to foreign suppliers and creates a trade barrier.

"It's definitely a protectionist measure," said David A. Holzworth, U.S. general counsel for the Chilean Exporters Assn., who has threatened to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization. He contended that much of the assessment would go to promote California avocados rather than the generic product.

The legislation's supporters, who include some ardent free-trade advocates in the California delegation, say that the measure does nothing to limit imports. It merely ensures that importers pay their fair share of an avocado promotion program that has been largely funded by California growers, they say.

Avocados were just one provision of the $78-billion spending bill that would ease a decades-old trade embargo with Cuba, allow for the import of cheaper U.S.-made prescription drugs and provide $3.8 billion in aid to farmers, including California growers who have suffered losses.

Supporters of the avocado provision say that it will cost taxpayers nothing but is vital to the California avocado industry, with a $348-million projected crop value this year.

The legislation creates a 12-member industry-run Hass Avocado Board--named after the most popular variety of avocado--and authorizes it to impose an initial assessment of 2 1/2 cents per pound on imported and domestically grown avocados. It would raise $10 million a year for an avocado marketing campaign--similar to the "other white meat" ad campaign for pork.

The legislation was pushed by much of the California delegation as vital to the economic well-being of the state's 6,000 avocado growers, who produce virtually all of the fruit grown in the United States.

California growers have faced increased foreign competition, with imports rising from 35 million pounds in 1996 to a projected 165 million pounds this year--a figure that represents about one-third of the state's crop.

"Without an expanded national avocado promotion program, imports will continue to supply a larger share of the U.S. avocado market and undermine U.S. production," said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), chief sponsor of the avocado measure.

Critics of the legislation contend that the industry-run board would be dominated by California growers and, as a result, would spend most of the money collected from the assessment to promote California avocados, not the generic product.

"If you say, 'Eat avocados,' nobody would be fussing," said a lobbyist for one of the groups opposed to the measure. "If you say, 'Eat California avocados,' that's a problem when you're taking money from importers."

The legislation's supporters say that, even if some of the promotion focuses on California avocados, none of the assessment paid by importers would be used for that purpose.

Officials in the U.S. trade representative's office said the measure is "consistent with our international obligations." One official said the bill treats importers and domestic growers in an "evenhanded fashion."

But Michael Browne, president of Fresh Directions International, a Ventura-based importer of avocados from the Dominican Republic, said in a letter to lawmakers that the legislation would "set a perilous precedent for other U.S. agricultural commodities and invite trade disputes, litigation and retaliatory actions by other nations."

Browne contends that the fee would cost his firm at least $160,000 to $320,000 a year at the current level of imports.

"If California's avocado industry were suffering, one might at least understand it turning to Washington for aid," he said. "But the fact is that the industry is thriving."

Calvert responded: "To sustain the industry in California, we need to increase consumption or we're going to have a lot of avocados. And the price of avocados could go down and that hurts everybody."

In a show of bipartisan support in a Congress that has not seen much of it, Calvert sought out Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), a House negotiator on the agriculture bill, to include the avocado provision. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was in San Francisco recovering from surgery, sent word to the bill's Senate negotiators of her support for the avocado provision. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) backed the provision as well.

Charley Wolk, chairman of the Santa Ana-based California Avocado Commission, said the legislation would ensure fairness in the avocado promotion program.

"I haven't heard any [importers] complain about the money we've been spending to build this market," he said.

Predicting that increased advertising would benefit all avocado growers, Wolk added, "We have people who don't have the foggiest notion what an avocado is. It's a marketer's dream."

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