The Senate is freaking out about Mexico buying cheese from Europe

DCNFThomas Phippen, DCNF

(JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

A quarter of the U.S. Senate is urging the Trump administration to look for ways to prevent Mexico from signing a trade deal with Europe that could edge out U.S. dairies.

In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer Tuesday, 25 Senators asked for help keeping Mexico to honor its trade agreements regarding U.S. cheese. The letter comes a few weeks after Mexico and the European Union announced a tentative trade agreement that if it went into effect, would restrict how cheese can be marketed in Mexico and may cut out American products.

Trade negotiators are also in the process of finishing negotiations on how to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that President Donald Trump has promised to reshape or scrap because the deal treats U.S. businesses unfairly.

What concerns the Senators who signed the letter — which includes eight Republicans, 17 Democrats and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders — is how the potential EU-Mexico trade deal would fare if NAFTA goes away.

“We are deeply concerned that American cheesemakers will be harmed by a reversal of their current access to the Mexican market, and will be denied the opportunity to sell products to Mexican consumers using common cheese product names that have been marketed for decades,” the letter states. “In addition, this threat to American dairy exports underscores and reaffirms the need for a renegotiated NAFTA that ensures strong market access for dairy exports to Mexico and Canada.”

The senators who signed the letter — including eight Republicans, 17 Democrats and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders — urged Lighthizer to “engage with your Mexican and Canadian counterparts to ensure that future trade policies do not limit export opportunities for American dairy farmers and processors.”

Mexico’s imports of U.S. cheese has risen with the countries increasing cheese consumption, and accounted for 30 percent of U.S. cheese exports, both in terms of volume and value, according to a February report from the National Milk Producers Federation. In 2016, exports to Mexico alone were worth $362 million to American dairies.

If the trade deal with the EU is ratified, it would be harder for the U.S. to sell cheese in Mexico because Europe requires that certain types of cheeses be produced in certain geographical regions. For instance, only feta produced in Greece can be marketed as feta, muenster can only be marketed as such if it comes from a Munster, France, and true parmesan can only be produced in Italy.

As part of the trade deal with the EU, Mexico would abide by the EU’s 340 European geographical indications, and would not be able to sell feta cheese made in Wisconsin as feta.

“Wisconsin cheese making is vital to our state’s economy and our heritage, which is why I am fighting back against any trade proposal that creates an uneven playing field for our Wisconsin businesses to compete,” Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who spearheaded the letter, said in a statement.

“The agreement between the European Union and Mexico threatens not only the names of common state products, but also key drivers of our Wisconsin economy. Mexico must reject any proposal that limits Wisconsin businesses’ ability to export and compete both domestically and internationally,” Baldwin said.

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