By JOHN O'CONNELL
Officials with U.S. Wheat Associates confirmed they temporarily removed American workers and their families from their organization's Cairo, Egypt, office to keep them out of harm's way due to turmoil in the country.
Steve Mercer, a U.S. Wheat spokesman, said Cairo office employees Mark Sampson and Ian Flagg were moved to Barcelona, Spain, for more than a week due to safety concerns posed by protests surrounding the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
Mercer said Egyptian workers continued to staff the Cairo office, and Sampson and Flagg returned for a few days earlier this month. They then headed on business trips to Tunisia and Ethiopia, and they're now in the U.S., preparing for a staff conference. Mercer did not wish to comment about future plans for the office for safety reasons.
Egypt is the world's largest importer of wheat, and 40 percent of world wheat trade is centered in North Africa, East Africa and the Middle East, which are served by the Cairo office, Mercer said.
Steve Wirsching, vice president and director of U.S. Wheat Associates West Coast office in Portland, said Egypt purchased 1.6 million metric tons of U.S. wheat during the 2012-2013 marketing year, including 231,000 metric tons of soft white wheat from Portland. Egypt's greatest import total of U.S. wheat came in the 2010-2011 season, when the country purchased 4 million metric tons. Wirsching attributed the spike in Egyptian wheat imports from the U.S. to poor crops in the Black Sea region of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Wirsching said U.S. Wheat is "monitoring the situation" regarding how unrest in Egypt may affect U.S. wheat purchases.
"There may be some concern there. In the medium term, governments understand it's very important to maintain a sense of normalcy with regard to the stable supply of wheat flour and bread products," Wirsching said. "We assume that the Egyptian government will continue to import wheat to help stabilize the government and the market, as well as to keep the population happy."
Blaine Jacobson, executive director of the Idaho Wheat Commission, was in Cairo about a month ago and said the upheaval that began two years ago has taken a toll on Egypt's reserves of currency, which is "starting to put pressure on their ability to import wheat."
"Wheat is the foundation of their diet," Jacobson said.
Jacobson serves as chairman of the U.S. Wheat and National Association of Wheat Growers food aid working group and said there have been suggestions about wheat in food aid to Egypt, though there have been no formal proposals.