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WASHINGTON — The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. temporarily has grounded its foreign trade missions, pending a review.

SPI scrubbed planned missions to Vietnam and South Africa — the Vietnam trip in part because of U.S. government delays in getting diplomats in place.

SPI members say it is very unlikely they will decide to stop the trade missions, which they say have gotten rave reviews from most participating companies.

What is more likely is a thorough look at what countries are visited and how often the trips will be held, said Lori Anderson, SPI's director of government affairs for economic and international trade issues.

Washington-based SPI and the Commerce Department conducted five missions for about 50 companies between September 1994 and September 1996, with three to China, one to India and the last to South America. Another mission went to China in 1980.

Commerce Department officials said SPI's plan for two trade missions a year may be too ambitious and the group should focus on one each year, she said. Planning more than one or two might detract from other international trade activities SPI performs, said Vincent Witherup, vice president of international sales and marketing for Conair Group Inc. in Pittsburgh.

The Commerce Department also has experienced a lot of turnover and has lost the two staff members most involved in the missions, Anderson said. The department and SPI jointly select destinations, and SPI relies heavily on department officials to plan the ventures, she said.

The missions have been successful, although the last mission to South America may not have been able to meet with as many people as possible because of miscommunication within the Commerce Department, said Dick Lenahan, director of the Western Hemisphere for the department's U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service.

John von Holdt Jr., president of Niles, Ill., injection molder and mold maker Plas-Tool Co., said the trips provide access to key decision-makers in ways that trade shows do not and allow export-oriented companies to form informal partnerships.

Witherup said he went on the South American mission last fall to look at the market and wound up with a ``nice potential joint venture.'' A mission to India in late 1995 convinced him ``absolutely I need to be there.''

``I'm not a real federal government supporter on many things, but the Department of Commerce has done a great job of organizing,'' Witherup said.

That firsthand exposure can be invaluable, said Joseph McDermott, the president of Composites Services Corp. in Cresskill, N.J. ``Some of the delegates who have gone come back very enthusiastic,'' he said. ``Others come back and say it's time well-spent because they find out they don't want to do business [there].''

The review, which will be conducted by SPI's International Trade Advisory Committee, could wrap up by early April, Anderson said.The missions are funded almost entirely by the companies that go. Each company pays its own travel expenses, plus about half of Anderson's expenses, and they split the $4,000-$5,000 paid to each U.S. embassy they visit to handle logistics and staff time, Anderson said.