U.S. pushes potato exports to Mexico

Mitch Lies/Capital Press Producers harvest potatoes near Hermiston, Ore., on Aug. 31. The potato industry wants full export access to Mexico and China.

Industry leaders want to open markets in China as well

By DAVE WILKINS

Capital Press

SUN VALLEY, Idaho -- Gaining full access to coveted export markets hasn't been easy for the U.S. potato industry.

Mexico and China have been on the industry's wish list for years.

The USDA and industry leaders are doing all they can to fully open both markets to U.S. fresh potatoes, members of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association were told Sept. 1.

In 2003 the U.S. began shipping potatoes 26 kilometers -- about 16 miles -- inside the Mexican border, under the terms of a three-phase agreement.

Mexico's northern states were supposed to open under the second phase of the agreement, and the entire country was to open during a third phase.

But Mexico passed a law that has blocked the last two phases of the agreement from being implemented.

"Unfortunately, we have never moved beyond stage one, the 26 kilometers," said John Toaspern, vice president of international marketing for the U.S. Potato Board.

The restriction has prevented U.S. potatoes from reaching major urban centers such as Mexico City and Guadalajara.

Despite limited market access, the U.S. shipped about 1.6 million hundredweight of fresh potatoes into Mexico during the past marketing year. Industry officials believe volume could more than quadruple under full market access.

Mexico has the potential to be a $50 million annual market for U.S. potatoes, the USDA has estimated.

Jeanne Van Dersal, potato trade director with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the issue is one of the agency's top 10 priorities. The law blocking full implementation of the 2003 agreement is now under review in Mexico.

"It's important to know that Mexico is making progress," said Van Dersal, who participated in a panel discussion via conference call.

"We have a lot of people working on this issue," she said. "We understand how important it is to industry and the impact it could have."

China, with more than 1 billion people, represents a huge potential for U.S. table stock and chipping stock potatoes, industry officials said.

While Hong Kong and Macau have imported some fresh potatoes from Idaho and other states, mainland China has remained closed to U.S. shipments.

Western-style hotels and restaurants would be an attractive market for high-quality U.S. table stock potatoes, Toaspern said.

"It would definitely offer us an excellent, excellent opportunity if we could get in," he said. "There is already quite a bit (of U.S. tablestock) that goes into Hong Kong."

Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Central America also represent good opportunities for U.S. potato shippers, Toaspern said.

"I see a lot of upside potential in Malaysia," he said. "The retail sector is still really expanding and is looking for high-quality U.S. product.

"If you're looking to break into new markets in Asia, I would make sure you had Malaysia on your list," he told grower-shippers.

Potato shippers are missing an opportunity if they aren't exporting, said Laura Johnson, manager of international trade and domestic marketing for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

"Why export? Because 96 percent of the world's population lives outside the U.S., and 80 percent of the world's wealth is outside the U.S.," she said.

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