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Potato's challenges lie beyond Idaho

Published on July 1, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on July 29, 2011 7:38AM


It is easy to understand why growers in Idaho want to protect their franchise on potatoes. Over the past 75 years they have worked to separate their potatoes from those grown in other states and countries. "Famous Potatoes -- Grown in Idaho" is a slogan many consumers recognize, and it often garners a price premium for the crop.

The Idaho Potato Commission trumpets the state's unique climate, soil and growing conditions and farmers' commitment to growing only the best potatoes. Last year, the Idaho potato crop was worth $824 million, 33 percent more than No. 2 Washington state with its $617 million crop.

Idaho growers have been joined by growers in other states in developing a unique identity for their potatoes. "Colorado Potatoes -- Your Super Carb," "Got to be North Carolina Potatoes" and "Homegrown Wisconsin Potatoes" are among the slogans that appear around the nation.

But in the grocery store -- and in Washington, D.C., where potatoes don't get the respect they deserve -- growers around the nation still need to work together. Ill-considered low-carbohydrate diets continue to proliferate, health fanatics and the food elite bad-mouth potatoes and USDA bureaucrats have banned potatoes from the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program because they are too popular. It should be noted that WIC recipients in Texas can buy tortillas -- another popular food -- but not potatoes.

Most recently, the Los Angeles Times published a story describing the potato as "Public Enemy No. 1 in America's battle of the bulge." The story was reprinted by newspapers and on websites around the nation and cited a Harvard School of Public Health study that blamed fried potatoes for causing more weight gain than other fried foods when eaten in excess.

Our reaction: What? That may be one of the oddest food studies ever. One wonders what other ways to pick on potatoes are waiting in the wings.

Congress has even had to step in to try to provide an adequate place at the table for potatoes in the federal school lunch program. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has led the charge to convince his colleagues in Congress that the potato is both nutritious and cost-effective. Its use in school lunches would save $6.8 billion in five years, he said.

With these challenges, all potato growers, not just those in Idaho, need to work together to make their case to Washington, D.C., bigwigs and consumers that potatoes are healthful, delicious and a great value.

In that context, it is disappointing to see the Idaho Potato Commission voice its opposition to the U.S. Potato Board's new "Potatoes -- Goodness Unearthed" trademark being used at the retail level.

The commission has spent hundreds of millions of dollars carving out a niche with its "Grown In Idaho" seal. It only makes sense that the seal be protected. Trademarks can fall by the wayside for a lack of adequate protection.

But with the battles facing the potato, the industry also needs to present a united front.

Our hope is the Idaho and national groups can amicably reach agreement that the main challenge is selling potatoes, not confusing consumers.


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