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Partial lift of potato ban in South Korea a small opportunity for Idaho

Potato farmers in Idaho may have a new export opportunity as South Korea lifted a ban on fresh "chipping" potatoes this month, but it will take some time to establish a relationship with the country. File Art

A partial repeal of a South Korean ban on potatoes from Idaho and other northwest states could increase Idaho’s exports.

But the state is essentially starting its relationship with the country from scratch after bans that have lasted for years.

South Korea lifted its ban the week of Oct. 8 against Pacific Northwest-grown potatoes used for things like potato chips. But its ban on other fresh potatoes remains because of a fear over a bacterium known as zebra chip, Washington state officials announced Oct. 11 during a phone conference from Gov. Chris Gregoire’s trade mission.

The potato disease is not harmful to humans, but it causes flecking in potatoes’ flesh, and when they are fried, the chip darkens. The defect can make the chips bitter.

Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, said past bans on fresh potatoes going into South Korea have weakened Idaho’s relationship with that country. He said Idaho started to make headway with the South Korean market before the ban related to zebra chip began in August.

“As a result of that, we have not really had a chance to develop the market again,” Muir said. “Right now we don’t have a significant amount of volume going into south Korea, although we hope to.”

Matt Harris, with the Washington Potato Commission, said that as part of the agreement to lift the ban, Washington state will apply a sprout inhibitor and will also cut into a set amount of tubers to look for signs of the pest.

Muir said the South Koreans are fine with existing provisions that potatoes will be inspected and none that include zebra chip will be included in exports, but remain concerned that the main insects that spread the disease, potato psyllids, will invade the country.

He said much of negotiating process on the potato ban is convincing South Koreans that the insects are not likely to be transferred with the potatoes, which remain underground until harvest, as they usually transfer the disease through foliage above ground.

French fries and dehydrated potatoes were never subject to the ban, Harris said.

An estimated 20,000 metric tons of potato chip potatoes were contracted to be sent to South Korea as part of the lifted ban, Harris said.

“We’re thankful that the Korean government and U.S. government were able to sit down and talk about mitigation tools to make sure trade stays fluid,” he said.

Harris said the market on fresh potatoes is still closed, but there are continuing efforts to find a solution. There are about 3,000 metric tons of fresh potatoes from the three Pacific Northwest states that are still held up while those talks continue.

Harris said that the lifting of the ban clears the way for more than $5 million in exports between now and the end of the year.

Muir said the South Korean market wouldn’t ever be a huge part of Idaho’s decade-old potato export business, but contracts with countries always help diversify Idaho’s potato sales to provide stability year to year.

“We don’t put all of our potatoes in one basket,” he said.

Gregoire called the lifting of the ban “a significant breakthrough for our potato growers.”

“This was one of many issues that we intended to bring up with our government counterparts in South Korea, and I’m pleased it could be resolved while our delegation was here,” Gregoire said in a written statement. “This serves as a strong example of the importance of good relationships with our trading partners.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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