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Spud board program making gains in Thailand

A United States Potato Board program aimed at educating foreign buyers about the quality of U.S. frozen potato products has enticed McDonald's restaurants in Thailand to switch to entirely U.S. supply.
John O’Connell

Capital Press

Published on October 15, 2015 10:19AM

Oregon State University assistant professor Vidyasagar “Sagar” Sathuvalli, left, instructs participants on the USPB’s Thai Media Tour about plant pathology, potato breeding and genetics in a greenhouse at OSU’s potato research station. The team covered various aspects of the Northwest potato harvest as part of a USPB effort highlighting the quality of U.S. potato products.

Courtesy of U.S. Potato Board

Oregon State University assistant professor Vidyasagar “Sagar” Sathuvalli, left, instructs participants on the USPB’s Thai Media Tour about plant pathology, potato breeding and genetics in a greenhouse at OSU’s potato research station. The team covered various aspects of the Northwest potato harvest as part of a USPB effort highlighting the quality of U.S. potato products.


A U.S. Potato Board program promoting U.S. frozen potato products to foreign buyers achieved its latest coup when McDonald’s restaurants in Thailand announced plans to start sourcing only U.S. fries. In conjunction with the late-summer announcement by McDonald’s Thailand, USPB hosted a team of five print journalists from the Southeast Asian nation and a TV crew to cover potato farming, processing, research and industry trends during harvest in Oregon, Washington and California.

John Toaspern, USPB’s chief marketing officer, said the Thailand media team’s trip was funded with about $50,000 from the $300,000 the organization allocated from its reserves in March to help boost foreign market share, much of which was lost due to a labor slowdown in West Coast ports.

However, Toaspern said U.S. potato product exports to Thailand have been growing. During the marketing year ending on July 1, 2015, he said Thailand purchased 10,797 metric tons of frozen U.S. potato products, valued at $11 million. Though precise numbers about purchasing by McDonald’s Thailand are proprietary, Toaspern said the company is a “major player in the market.” He said McDonald’s Thailand had previously purchased frozen potato products from both the U.S. and New Zealand.

Toaspern said some potato TV segments aired in Thailand while the team was still participating in the tour.

“The benefit both from TV coverage as well as written press coverage is it highlights to consumers in Thailand where U.S. fries come from and what they’re all about,” Toaspern said. “They get to meet the growers, see the process and learn the whole farm-to-fork story and have positive reporting around the fact that McDonald’s is serving these U.S. fries.”

During the recent tour, the team observed potato harvest at USPB International Marketing Committee Co-chairman Mike Pink’s farm in Pasco, Wash. They also dined at an area McDonald’s and toured a Washington fry processing plant.

They learned about potato research during a stop at Oregon State University, where they heard presentations on potato breeding, plant physiology and genetics.

“They are smart consumers, and they want to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced so when it gets to their table, they know something about it,” said Phil Hamm, director of OSU’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

In San Francisco, the team heard about potato industry trends and spud nutrition at the USPB’s food service contractor, Ketchum, and they visited a Create Your Own Taste McDonald’s — a new restaurant format allowing guests to make their own gourmet burgers at self-service kiosks.

Toaspern said the Why Buy U.S.? messaging program has been in place for four years, utilizing presentations by USPB international staff to foreign buyers. He said the program has led anywhere from 20 to 30 foreign chains to switch to U.S. products annually in recent years, and USPB plans to increase its usage of the program in the coming year.

“We have a whole presentation to show the benefits (of buying U.S. potato products) in terms of a higher return per case, as well as greater customer satisfaction,” Toaspern said.



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