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OUR OPINION: Fully investigate Mexico’s sugar policies

The law is the law. And that’s true for the statutes governing the sugar trade no less than it is for assaults, drug dealing and white-collar crime.

So, even though the Secretary of Agriculture says the U.S. sugar industry’s antidumping petitions are “ill-timed,” the Obama Administration must investigate the claims thoroughly and rule on them without prejudice.

As a spokesman for the American Sugar Alliance said, “U.S. trade law is designed to stop this injury, and we are simply asking the U.S. government for the remedies provided by U.S. law.

“We are confident that U.S. government officials will enforce U.S. law objectively and vigorously.”

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico has unlimited, duty-free access to the U.S. sugar market. Not even American sugar producers themselves — such as the Red River Valley-based American Crystal Sugar Co. — enjoy that kind of unfettered access, the producers say.

But NAFTA isn’t the last word in trade law. “Under the Tariff Act of 1930, U.S. industries may petition the government for relief from imports that are sold in the United States at less than fair value (‘dumped’) or that benefit from subsidies provided through foreign government programs,” Ag Professional magazine notes.

Or as the American Sugar Coalition’s lawyer Robert Cassidy said in a news story, “NAFTA is not a license to dump and subsidize sugar and cause material injury to the domestic sugar industry.”

That’s why a group of sugar producers petitioned for relief. Last week, the International Trade Commission ruled 5-0 in their favor, resolving that harm likely had occurred and that a full investigation is warranted.

The U.S. Commerce Department also is investigating the claims. And if both the Commerce Department and the ITC find that Mexico is dumping sugar, then the Commerce Department can impose additional duties on Mexico to offset the unfair trade.

Enter the Agriculture Department, which is underenthused.

“I’ve got to be candid with you,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to Forum News Service last month.

“From my perspective, it is a bit ill-timed. I am not suggesting there isn’t an issue. There is. …

“We are at a very delicate circumstance with Mexico on a variety of issues. I am sure they don’t see this as a particularly friendly gesture. In a perfect world, I would liked to have seen this perhaps not occur or not occur at this time.”

It’s probably true that Mexico “doesn’t see this as a particularly friendly gesture.” But the conflict didn’t start with this gesture, friendly or otherwise.

The conflict started with action by Mexico that seemed to defy U.S. trade law, as Vilsack admits (“I’m not suggesting there isn’t an issue. There is.”)

In other words, Mexico apparently broke the rules, causing nearly a billion dollars in damages to the U.S. sugar industry in the process. And now, American sugar producers simply are insisting that those rules be enforced.

Does Vilsack really expect sugar producers to ignore the dumping out of concern for Mexico’s sensitivities?

Of course, the Commerce Department — which will conduct the trade investigation — is not the Agriculture Department, which Vilsack heads. Here’s hoping the Obama administration recognizes that separation and doesn’t let the ag secretary’s discomfort get in the way of fully enforcing the law.