(May 5) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The potato industry, already reeling from negative publicity about the latest diet crazes that shun its product, is asking the government to help growers avoid a lean season.

At the behest of the Washington-based National Potato Council, 27 members of Congress wrote Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman April 28 requesting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s assistance in making additional purchases of potatoes and potato products under the “bonus buy” provisions of the Section 32 program.

Joan Shaffer, a spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, acknowledged that the council had contacted the agency about additional purchases, and the agency is reviewing the request.

Since October, the USDA has purchased more than $21 million in potatoes and potato products, Shaffer said.

The letter from the lawmakers emphasized a soft demand for potatoes and potato products and a negative trade balance in potatoes and potato products experienced for the first time in U.S. history.

“The trade imbalance is serious, and then the flatness of demand is serious, too, so it’s a combination of both,” said John Keeling, the council’s executive vice president and chief executive officer.

The letter also mentioned Canada’s continued increase in production and imports to the U.S, while Canadian trade restrictions significantly limit U.S. access to its market.

Two factors in Canada work against U.S. potato shippers, Keeling said.

“One is antidumping duties on potatoes out of Pacific Northwest,” he said. “More broadly, they have a ministerial exemption, which is required for bulk shipments.”

The antidumping duties apply to packaged product, he added.

“Each ministerial government has, in essence, veto power over decisions from other (provincial) governments,” he said. “Manitoba can override a request for our product that comes from British Columbia. Basically, if a producer in Manitoba has potatoes, they can make the people in British Columbia take their potatoes, regardless of the variety, price and quality of the potatoes.”

The council, working with the congressional offices of Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Mike Simpson, both Idaho Republicans, gathered signatures from lawmakers representing the major potato-producing states.

“USDA’s assistance in purchasing potatoes for domestic feeding programs is critical as the industry faces an oversupply situation and the first trade imbalance of potatoes in U.S. history,” Keith Masser, president of the potato council, said in a news release. He also is a grower-shipper based in Pennsylvania.