(UPDATED COVERAGE, March 12) DENVER — The U.S. Potato Board is targeting declining demand as a top priority.

During the group’s annual meeting March 11, board President Tim O’Connor urged members, in approving the next long-term plan, to make fixing declining demand a priority, and to focus on long-term goals. About 100 members were in attendance.

“If you have an industry of declining demand, there are a few things you see,” O’Connor said. “You see a lot of people who want to sell, and not a lot of people who want to buy, so you get a price war. Nobody wins a price war but the buyer.”

Negative press about acrylamide (a naturally occurring chemical compound produced by heating potatoes and other high-starch foods), low-carb diets, obesity and the perceived exclusion of potatoes in the lifestyles of on-the-go people are contributing to the declining demand, O’Connor said.

“I think if we don’t remain focused on long-term demand as a potato board, we’re going to be missing the boat,” O’Connor said. “I understand the short-term problems, low prices, too many potatoes, but there’s an endpoint to those problems.”

The speech was a call to action for grower-shippers.

“Are you communicating to consumers about nutrition? You’ve got a vehicle. You’ve got packaging. Just say something to consumers about nutrition,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor asked marketers to slap the nutrition message on trucks, signs on the highway, and, jokingly, on their children’s clothing.

He also stressed the importance of different industry sectors, including table stock, dehydrated, chipping, frozen and seed, working together on domestic marketing, international marketing and product innovation.

“There’s too much competition in this industry between sectors, and I don’t see the upside,” O’Connor said.

Negative media messages about acrylamide is not only a processed potato problem, he said.

“It hasn’t hurt demand yet, but it has potential, if it gets too much negative press, to add to declining demand,” O’Connor said. “(With) fresh, you don’t get to dodge that bullet.”

With the federal government’s focus on child obesity, potato products are in danger of being pulled from school menus.

“Who’s going to argue it’s okay to keep making our children fat?” O’Connor said. “I know we have great products, and I haven’t bought into this agenda yet, but right now, our arguments against this agenda are weak.”

This issue isn’t limited to french fries, O’Connor said, because people like to load up fresh potatoes with fattening products, making them equally if not more unhealthful menu options.

“The reason USPB hasn’t fixed this yet is it’s not just USPB’s problem, it’s everybody’s problem,” O’Connor said.

UPDATED: Potato board president addresses declining demand

Ashley Bentley

Tim O'Connor, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Potato Board, addresses members of the board at its annual meeting March 11.