Growers fight for Korea market
Spud leader: 'It is very important that we get this market open'
By MITCH LIES
South Korea is shutting off all shipments of fresh potatoes from Oregon, Washington and Idaho beginning Aug. 17 because of the presence of zebra chip in Northwest potatoes.
The plant disease, found for the first time in the Northwest last year, has been found in one field in Oregon and four fields in Idaho this summer.
The U.S. exported almost 20,000 metric tons of fresh potatoes to Korea in 2011, at a value of almost $7 million, with Oregon shipping just under 12,000 tons and Washington nearly 7,000 tons.
The majority are used to make potato chips.
"The Korean market is really important to the entire U.S., but especially to Oregon growers," said Bill Brewer, administrator and CEO of the Oregon Potato Commission.
"(Oregon growers) have planted potatoes that were destined to go to the Korean market, so it is very important that we get this market open," he said. "Also chip companies in Korea are relying on these potatoes. So it is extremely important to them to get this product."
Jim Cramer, administrator of the Oregon Department of Agriculture's commodity inspection division, said the department is working with federal officials and officials from Idaho and Washington to lift the ban. State potato commissions also are involved, he said.
"We're watching this closely and working with our partners at APHIS (the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to discuss the issue and mitigate the concerns regarding risk expressed by Korea," said Matt Harris, assistant executive director for the Washington Potato Commission. "We're trying to open the market as best we can."
"We respect the Koreans' right to question these types of things and we believe that once we sit down with APHIS and their Korean counterparts and review the science of how zebra chip spreads that eventually the market will open," Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, said.
The U.S. is expected to argue that while zebra chip poses quality concerns, it does not pose a threat to Korea's potato crop. Among the reasons:
* Scientists do not believe zebra chip spreads from tuber to tuber.
* To spread in a field, an infected potato would have to be planted, sprout and fed on by a potato psyllid, which spreads the disease.
* It is highly unlikely a psyllid could enter Korea from a load of U.S. potatoes. Psyllids don't feed on tubers, so are unlikely to be present. And potatoes shipped to Korea are washed and brushed prior to shipping.
* All fresh potatoes shipped to Korea are treated with a sprout inhibitor, sources said. And potatoes infected with zebra chip typically don't sprout.
"It is a quality issue, but it is not a phytosanitary issue," Cramer said.
Zebra chip was first recorded in Mexico in 1994, and first observed in the U.S. in Texas in 2000.
The disease causes zebra-like stripes to appear on tuber flesh, making infected potatoes unmarketable.
Brewer said he hopes the ban is lifted quickly, given that Oregon ships potatoes to Korea year-round. Convincing Korean officials to lift the ban before the fall shipping season appears vital.
According to records from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon shipped 2,500 tons to Korea in November and 6,000 tons in December of last year, accounting for about 75 percent of the year's shipping volume.
Discussions between U.S. and Korean phytosanitary officials are expected to take place the last week in August in California during a previously scheduled bilateral meeting, Brewer said.