“We welcome this new step in further expanding commercial relations between our countries,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman. “Agriculture and food are key components in our trade and investment, and this agreement will help expand opportunities on both sides of the border.”

Secretary Veneman signed the agreement in Mexico City during a meeting with Secretary of Agriculture Javier Usabiaga. U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick and Mexico Trade Minister Luis Ernest Derbez have also signed the agreement.

Ambassador Zoellick noted that, “Mexico is now the United States’ third largest export market for food and agricultural goods. This agreement is an important step reaffirming this vital trade relationship. The agreement underlines the close and important agriculture trade relationship between our two countries.”

The memorandum establishes a Consultative Committee on Agriculture that includes a “rapid response” team, intended to help the two countries deal with trade issues as they first emerge. It establishes a comprehensive early warning and consultation process to enable addressing problems quickly, before they become trade disruptions.

The United States has a positive trade balance with Mexico in food and agricultural products. Sales of these goods to Mexico reached $7.4 billion in 2001, an increase of nearly 58 percent since implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.

Record levels of exports to Mexico include red meats, processed fruits and vegetables, poultry meat, snack foods, fresh fruits, feeds and fodder and rice. USDA officials say this broad cross section of commodities indicates that the benefits of the NAFTA are widely distributed across U.S. agriculture. (U.S. imports of food and agriculture goods from Mexico were $5.3 billion in 2001, 83 percent higher since the implementation of NAFTA.)

The purview of the Consultative Committee, which is co-chaired by USDA and USTR and the Mexico ministers of agriculture and economic development, will encompass such critical trade issues as market access, sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures, and information exchange in areas such as biotechnology and animal and plant health.

“By working together – expert to expert, policy leader to policy leader – we can more quickly and fairly resolve trade difficulties before they become serious impediments,” said Veneman. “The result will be enormously helpful to our farmers, the food industry and consumers. Our relationship, always close, will be even closer,” said Veneman.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com