U.S. trade body rules that blueberry imports do not harm industry

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A powerful U.S. trade agency ruled on Thursday that blueberry imports are not causing serious injury to domestic producers, dismissing complaints from Florida and Georgia farmers, and will not recommend further action to reduce foreign supplies.

In recent years, U.S. producers have claimed damages from what they argue are unfair trade practices by large exporters such as Mexico, which send more than $13 billion in fresh produce to the United States annually.

The complaints have often targeted fresh-fruit exporters that compete against American producers from politically influential states.

The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) “determined that fresh, chilled or frozen blueberries are not being imported into the United States in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury, or threat of serious injury, to the domestic industry,” the agency said.

The ruling in the so-called Section 201 safeguard investigation ended for now the possibility of the U.S. government imposing duties on imported blueberries.

The ITC is an independent quasi-judicial government body that investigates trade issues on behalf of the president and Congress. It holds the final say on anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties imposed by the U.S. Commerce Department.

The Mexican government praised the ruling in a statement, adding that its blueberry exports complemented U.S. production and benefited consumers with year-round supply.

Mexican officials said the unanimous ITC ruling set an encouraging precedent for pending U.S. investigations into the country’s strawberry, raspberry, sweet pepper, squash and cucumber exports.

U.S. trade officials had requested the case to determine whether the foreign supplies were hurting domestic growers.

Mexico is one of the top three foreign suppliers of blueberries to the United States, along with Peru and Chile, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last year, Mexico exported some 53,000 tonnes of blueberries valued at more than $355 million, according to Agriculture Ministry data.

About 96% of the shipments went to the United States.

Reporting by David Lawder in Washington and David Alire Garcia in Mexico City; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Peter Cooney