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Published February 15, 2012, 07:00 PM

Spuds, science and success

The U.S, potato industry enjoyed a lot of success in 2011, including rising consumption and a big win on a controversial proposal that would have limited spuds in school cafeterias, potato boosters say.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The U.S, potato industry enjoyed a lot of success in 2011, including rising consumption and a big win on a controversial proposal that would have limited spuds in school cafeterias, potato boosters say.

They also say their industry faces challenges going forward, particularly the need to assemble a strong scientific case to rebut critics who claim French fries are unhealthy.

“Ignore the science at your peril. This is where the mischief (efforts to discredit potatoes) starts,” said Maureen Storey, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance for Potato Research and Education.

Storey spoke Wednesday at the annual International Crop Expo at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. More than 5,000 people are expected to attend the free two-day show, which ends Thursday.

The show is sponsored by area potato, small grain, soybean and dry bean groups.

The Alliance for Potato Research and Education “seeks to educate consumers and others about potato and French fries as an enjoyable part of a healthy and balanced diet,” according to the organization’s web site.

Collecting scientific data to present to “influencers” — people such as medical doctors and nutritionists — is particularly important, Storey said.

The influencers themselves may be influenced by negative reports about potatoes, she said. For example, an influential scientist recently published a study that finds French fries can cause obesity, especially in children.

Storey noted that eggs were considered unhealthy by some experts 30 years ago. Over time, as more scientific data was gathered, that assessment gradually changed.

Today, eggs are regarded as healthy — evidence that better, more complete scientific data can win out eventually, she said.

French fries get a bad rap today, just like eggs did 30 years ago, she said.

French-fried potatoes account for only 1½ percent of Americans’ total daily calories, so blaming fries for obesity doesn’t make sense, Storey said.

Spud success story

A year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was proposing to allow no more than one cup of starchy vegetables, including potatoes, to be served per week in school cafeterias.

The proposal had strong support from some powerful interests, said John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council. He spoke Wednesday in Grand Forks.

His organization seeks to provide a unified voice for potato growers nationwide on legislative, regulatory, environmental and trade issues.

The potato industry, which maintained that the USDA proposal made no sense scientifically or nutritionally, worked hard to defeat it. The industry did extensive research on what the proposal would mean if implemented.

“We were better armed than anybody else to understand what was going on,” Keeling said.

The research found, for example, that implementing the proposal would increase the cost of school lunches by $6.8 billion over five years.

An industry survey also found that 40 percent of school food service directors thought the proposal would reduce the nutritional level of their school’s food, while 32 percent of those surveyed felt the proposal would not have a positive or negative impact on nutrition. Only 5 percent of those surveyed thought the proposal would improve nutrition; the remaining 23 percent were unsure.

“So we had 72 percent of the practitioners out there delivering these meals saying that we’re going to make kids worse off with this (USDA proposal) or at best keep them even,” Keeling said.

“It’s an incredible example of how government moves a policy forward without listening to the people it will have an impact on,” he said.

The industry’s hard work paid off in November, when President Barack Obama signed legislation blocking the rule, Keeling said.

Making a comeback

Even with negative claims about French fries, potatoes are increasingly popular with consumers in the U.S. and worldwide, said two officials of the U.S. Potato Board, the nation’s potato marketing and research organization.

“Potatoes are back,” said Richey Toevs, an Aberdeen, Idaho, grower and co-chairman of the U.S. Potato Board’s international marketing committee.

Toevs and Tim O’Connor, the board’s president and chief executive officer, both spoke Wednesday in Grand Forks.

Three examples of spuds’ rebound cited by Toevs and O’Connor:

• 18 percent of Americans now have a negative perception of spuds, down from a high of 39 percent in 2003.

• The number of potato side items on restaurant menus has increased 3 percent over the past year

• U.S. potato exports are strong, topping the $1 billion mark in three straight marketing years.

Foreign buyers appreciate the consistent quality and supply of U.S. spuds, as well as technical and marketing support provided by the U.S. Potato Board, O’Connor said.

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