The US garlic industry is being threatened by illegal Chinese imports, unpredictable weather and soaring land costs, according to growers.

The Fresh Garlic Producers Association complained to the US Customs Service last week that Chinese garlic – which is supposed to be subject to a 376% tariff – is illegally entering US ports in containers from Thailand and Vietnam.

The garlic is being sold – minus the tariffs – for about 30% below domestic prices, said association spokesman Jim Provost.

“We’re facing a looming threat from these illegal imports,” Provost said.

Last year, Americans consumed an average of two pounds of garlic each, according to the US Department of Agriculture. On any given day, one out of five Americans eats garlic, more than french fries or ketchup.

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Domestic growers trying to satisfy that demand face a severe threat from China, the largest garlic producer in the world with 13 billion pounds a year – 66% of the world’s garlic output.

Customs Service officials confirmed they’re looking into the complaints of illegal imports.

“As long as there is a demand for garlic in the US and a supply in China, they’re going to try to get it in,” said Kevin McCann, an international trade specialist with the Customs Service in Washington. “But they’re certainly not going to pay the 376% tariff, so they’ll try other things.”

McCann said investigators have been in Long Beach, the primary port for garlic imports. He said some type of intervention will take place soon.

Chinese trade ministry officials in Beijing said they had prepared answers to questions raised by The Associated Press about garlic, but had not received approval to release them.

At Christopher Ranch, the nation’s leading fresh garlic producer, spokeswoman Patsy Ross said trade violations are not their only problem.

“This is a fragile industry,” she said, standing in a bustling garlic-packing warehouse at the ranch in Gilroy, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. “There are a lot of things that are out of our control.”

El Nino’s 1997 torrential rains left floods in the fields and a rust-colored fungus on the garlic, wiping out about a third of the 1998 harvest. And increasing property values – particularly in California where 84% of US garlic is grown – have forced farmers out of the industry.

US garlic growers won relief from cheap Chinese imports in 1994, when the International Trade Commission imposed the 376% tariff – the highest on any agricultural product.

That slowed the flood of Chinese garlic, which had gone from about 3 million pounds a year in 1992 to 64 million pounds – almost half the entire US market at the time – by 1994.

But since 1994, there have been regular attempts to dodge the tariff, according to researchers at the National Food and Agriculture Policy Project in Mesa, Ariz.

Garlic industry attorney Mike Coursey said imports from Thailand suspiciously shot up last year, and that domestic garlic producers estimate between 10 million and 15 million pounds of Chinese garlic came into the US illegally.

“There’s been a ferocious increase coming in shipping containers supposedly filled with Thai garlic, and there’s no way that the product coming in is actually Thai,” he said.

The US isn’t the only country to scuffle with China over garlic. Thailand, Canada, Mexico, Israel and most of Europe have tariffs in place against Chinese garlic, which reaches those markets at just 15 cents a pound, about one-fourth of what it costs other countries to produce.