Potato industry says spuds get bad rap
By JIM SCHUH of The Gazette
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What weighs about five ounces, contains 100 calories, is a source of vitamin C, potassium and fiber, and has no fat?
If you answered, "a potato," you'd be correct. That's a message the U.S. Potato Board (USPB) will be touting in the months ahead. The board's president and chief executive, Tim O'Connor, outlined a new promotional campaign earlier this week at the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) annual education conference in Stevens Point.
The industry feels the potato has gotten a bad rap lately - especially from advocates of what it calls "fad diets," like the Atkins diet, which encourages followers to abandon carbohydrates. But that's just part of the problem.
The nation is experiencing a decline in potato consumption, and that has Wisconsin and other growers concerned. Portage County is the state's leading potato producer, and lower sales volume has the potential to cause a substantial economic impact on the area. Just for the record, Portage County growers harvest about 25,000 acres of potatoes, equaling roughly a billion pounds of potatoes each year. Last year's growing season was a good one across the country, producing plenty of potatoes. A good supply and declining usage translates into lower prices - good for the consumer perhaps, but not so good for the producer.
O'Connor said the USPB strategy aims to increase the use of potatoes, expand markets, improve the competitive position of U.S. potatoes and present a favorable image of potatoes to the public. To do that, the board is embarking on the initial stage of an overall $4.4 million print media campaign in some of the country's larger newspapers and popular magazines.
It's not likely to be an easy task. USPB research has shown that consumers don't view potatoes as being nutritious, but see them instead as carbohydrates. Changing demographics show that more than 60 percent of the American population now lives in one- and two-person households. Those people don't purchase 20-pound bags of potatoes, and growers have responded by bagging spuds in smaller bags.
In addition, there's been a decline in sales of french fries at fast food restaurants, while sales of salads have expanded. Another difficulty is increased interest in ethnic foods and quick-and-easy meals, and they frequently don't include potatoes. There's also been an emergence of so-called "casual restaurants" which often leave potatoes out of their servings.
Obesity issues have hurt the image of potatoes, and spuds have suffered as a result of fad and low-carbohydrate diets. O'Connor thinks low-carb diets - which arrived between 2000 and 2001 - are a fad - but, in his words, they're "a fad right in our face."
USPB research has shown there are now only about 70 in-home eatings of potatoes per capita each year - a 13 percent decline from five years earlier. People "are not eating as many potato meals," said O'Connor. He noted that in 1985, 42 percent of home meals were "traditional," that is, meat and potatoes. By 2000, that number had sunk to 36 percent. "As consumers lead busy lifestyles, clearly, we're eating differently," O'Connor added.
U.S. potato exports had been increasing over a period of years, but that has reversed during the past two years as processors have built new plants or expanded existing facilities closer to their markets - in places like Argentina, Egypt, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and the Netherlands. New plants will be coming on line in China, Colombia, Chile and Brazil.
In an effort to change these negative trends, the USPB is beginning its "Healthy Potato" campaign. It has developed a partnership with Weight Watchers, which will tell "the potato story" to its members. In an upcoming Weight Watchers "Pick of the Season," promotion, potatoes will be the first vegetable featured.
The USBP will spend $2 million in the next 18 months on advertising. The thrust of the ads will be that potatoes are healthy, naturally fat-free, rich in vitamin C and potassium, and a good source of fiber. A Harvard Medical School doctor and a dietician both will recommend potatoes as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
Although the USPB plans to spend more than $4 million for the multi-year promotion, O'Connor said, "We can't buy our way out of this problem with advertising or public relations." He said that science is a key element, adding "We need to put the message of nutrition before everyone."
O'Connor unveiled a print ad featuring a nutrition label on a potato, highlighting the potato's positives. A tape measure around the potato's mid-section appears to squeeze the spud, suggesting it's not fattening.
Growers, O'Connor said, have a large role to play in promoting nutrition, and he encouraged them to include a new logo on their fresh market bags of potatoes. It reads, "The Healthy Potato - Naturally Nutritious, Always Delicious."
O'Connor said the industry will have to monitor consumer shifts and market changes, and needs innovation in marketing its products that in response to consumer demands. They'll also have to create new markets for U.S. potatoes, and invest in operations with the greatest upside potential.
The WPVGA's annual three-day educational conference and trade show draws several hundred growers from around the state to learn more about the latest potato research and marketing. It took place at the Stevens Point Holiday Inn.