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Progress reported on spuds in WIC, Mexico

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

National Potato Council staff say there have been positive developments regarding two priority issues for the spud industry.

POCATELLO, Idaho — A National Potato Council official reported progress in his industry’s efforts to both include fresh, white potatoes in the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and to open all of Mexico to fresh U.S. spud imports.

Ryan Kraybill, NPC senior director of legislative and regulatory affairs, shared his optimism about the issues, which have frustrated the U.S. potato industry for years, with growers attending a recent potato conference in Pocatello.

Potatoes are the only fresh fruit or vegetable excluded from purchases under WIC, a nutrition program for low-income pregnant or nursing women and their young children.

Kraybill explained so-called report language endorsing spuds in WIC was included in the recently approved federal appropriations bill, meaning it’s the “sense of Congress” that USDA should change its policy. Though the language is merely a recommendation to USDA, NPC believes it carries weight because it’s paired with the bill granting the agency’s funding.

In response to a request in the report language, USDA has agreed to issue a detailed document outlining explanations within 15 days of its WIC decision if the exclusion is continued. Thus far, USDA has maintained white potatoes aren’t needed in the program because the WIC target audience already consumes enough of them.

“That kind of response is not going to be sufficient at this point in time,” Kraybill said. “That would be missing the point completely of what Congress is asking them to do.”

The potato industry plans to counter any nutritional arguments in the USDA report with its own scientific studies. Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir emphasized potato consumption has been declining, and fresh spuds are a rich source of nutrients, potassium and vitamin C.

“The potato has more nutrition value for the quarter than any other fruit or vegetable,” Muir said.

Kraybill said the industry is uncertain how many spuds may be sold through WIC, but explained the “real strong rub with the issue is it gives an incredibly negative message about the healthfulness of the potato.”

Kraybill said an effort was also made to update WIC in the Farm Bill, but the appropriations bill “reached the finish line first.”

Kraybill also reported progress on opening all of the Mexican market to fresh U.S. spuds, beyond the current restriction of no more than 16 miles from the U.S. border. In August 2012, Mexico proposed a rule favorable to the U.S. spud industry’s cause, and supported by NPC public comments. A few months later, however, another Mexican agency revised the proposed rule listing 80 U.S. pests of concern, though a panel of experts with the North American Plant Protection Organization had previously found only six pests of concern.

In October 2013, following a change in leadership, the Mexican government proposed a new rule in line with the rule NPC supported.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Kraybill said.