Potato producers see 20 percent tariff as manageable

By DAVE WILKINS

Capital Press

Vietnam has opened its doors to U.S. fresh potatoes, creating an immediate opportunity for chipping stock exports.

In time, the new market could be worth as much as $5 million annually, including table stock exports, industry officials said.

"I think we should be able to do from $1 million to $3 million in business initially, and hopefully that can grow to closer to $5 million," John Toaspern, vice president of international marketing for the U.S. Potato Board, said in an interview.

A 20 percent tariff will add to the cost of doing business, but is not expected to be prohibitive, Toaspern said.

China is the only other country allowed to export fresh potatoes to Vietnam.

Initially, the new market is expected to be primarily for chipping stock potatoes.

Vietnam has two major potato chip processors and a few smaller ones. Domestic potato production can't keep up with demand, Toaspern said.

Chips are becoming more popular in Vietnam as personal incomes grow and living standards improve, he said.

U.S. growers could develop a secondary market for table stock spuds in Vietnam.

"I think there can be a decent table stock market as well, but it will take some time," Toaspern said.

In February 2009 the National Potato Council asked the USDA to seek access for fresh potatoes to Vietnam.

U.S. industry representatives met with Vietnamese and USDA officials in Hanoi in April 2009 to further discuss the request. Later that year, the potato board played host to Vietnamese officials when they visited California and arranged for a visit to potato growing operations in Bakersfield.

Asia has been a significant market for U.S. frozen potato products for decades, but gaining market access for fresh potatoes has been problematic because of phytosanitary concerns.

U.S. growers have gained a foothold in several Asian countries in recent years with chipping stock potatoes, which are viewed as having far less pest risk than table stock potatoes.

"Chipping stock potatoes are going straight to the plant and getting processed," Toaspern said. "There really is no risk."

Japan, the Philippines, Korea and Thailand permit limited access to U.S. chipping stock potatoes.

U.S. potato growers have full market access to Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. But some important markets have eluded U.S. growers.

The industry has been seeking access to mainland China for fresh potatoes for more than 10 years. China is the world's largest producer and consumer of potatoes.

In 1999, the Chinese government agreed to move toward allowing U.S. fresh potato imports, pending completion of a pest risk assessment.

The U.S. promptly provided the requested information, but the Chinese have made almost no effort to open their market, according to the National Potato Council.

Council officials said the Chinese have been using the issue as leverage, refusing to allow fresh potato access unless the U.S. opens its own markets to several Chinese products.

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