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OTTAWA, Ont. — Minister for International Trade Pierre Pettigrew said yesterday that Canada will meet with officials in Washington Jan. 17 to formally discuss the U.S.’s ban on P.E.I. potatoes.

Trade officials will attempt to head off a formal dispute under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Pettigrew requested the consultation last week after informal discussions failed. Under NAFTA rules, the U.S. must grant Canada the meeting.

The potatoes have been banned in the United States since October, when Canadian inspectors discovered a potato wart disease in one field’s harvest. The disease is harmless to humans and scientists have contained the outbreak.

The U.S. is afraid the disease could spread to its potato crop. It has proposed restricted access to its market only if the Island’s potatoes are cleaned using an elaborate and time consuming process. Canadian politicians and farmers consider the restriction excessive, and say the U.S. has over-produced potatoes and is trying to curb supply.

P.E.I. last year sold $36-million worth of potatoes to the U.S.

Meanwhile, Pettigrew announced that the government wants to start public consultations into broadening free trade to include Central America. Canada exports $212 million in goods a year to the region and imports about $250 million.

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