Mexican buyers express interest in U.S. spuds
By John O’Connell
Strong attendance during a recent trade event in Mexico City bodes well for the future of an expanded Mexican market for fresh, U.S. potatoes, according to John Toaspern, international marketing director with U.S. Potato Board.
USPB hosted the U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Potato Encounter on May 6, 13 days prior to the scheduled lifting of Mexico’s prohibition on importing fresh, U.S. potatoes past 16 miles from the border. The event drew 115 officials representing Mexican buyers and trade associations, according to USPB. The U.S. industry sent 64 participants, including representatives of 28 grower-shipper operations.
Five Idaho fresh potato shipping companies sent officials, and Oregon, Washington and California were also well represented, Toaspern said.
“Based on the attendance at our event in Mexico, I would say the interest is very strong on both sides,” Toaspern said. “The purpose was to educate folks on both sides of the border about the marketplace in Mexico and the pending changes, as well as to provide an opportunity for them to meet one another.”
Mexico has restricted fresh U.S. potato access beyond 16 miles from the border since March of 2003, but still has become the No. 2 importer of fresh U.S. spuds. Under the new rules, shipments beyond the 16-mile boundary will be limited to cities with populations of at least 100,000 people, and potatoes must be shipped in containers of no more than 20 pounds. Mexico imposed a special rule requiring Idaho fields to be tested prior to planting for potato cyst nematode.
Toaspern said the event attracted a “good mix” of U.S. shippers looking to expand business in Mexico and shippers interested in a new opportunity.
“A lot of relationships were initiated,” Toaspern said.
Mexican consumers beyond the 16-mile boundary now eat mostly small, white potatoes. Once shipments commence, Toaspern said USPB will implement a marketing program to introduce U.S. varieties through in-store promotions, tasting, signs and point-of-sale materials. USPB will also promote potato nutrition to build demand.
“Consumption of potatoes per capita is much lower in Mexico than in the U.S. We’d like to grow the overall pie,” Toaspern said.
Steve Theobald, president and CEO of R & G Potato in American Falls, Idaho, said there’s a window from January through mid-April when Mexican chipping companies can’t source an adequate local spud supply. His company, which hasn’t done business with Mexico before, made good contacts with three small, Mexican chipping companies during a small trade fair during the USPB event.
“It’s worth pursuing,” Theobald said.
Lynn Wilcox, an Idaho Potato Commissioner with Wilcox Fresh in Rexburg, has been shipping to Mexico since 2003. He now sends about 10 loads per week to Mexico and hopes to increase that volume, but he believes Idaho will be limited this season by the PCN testing requirement.
“I think the interest is definitely relatively high, not just in Idaho but all across the U.S. That’s a large, untapped market,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox warned growers against planting spuds specifically for the Mexican market, concerned the rules could change on a whim.