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Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, told The Produce News Oct. 1 that although sweet potato harvesting is underway across the country, it will be some time before official crop figures are available.

"Growers in the major sweet potato-producing states stay in touch with me, however, and based on what I've heard to date, everyone is having a good crop this year," said Mr. Walker. “There is a little concern about the heavy rainfall that swept up the East Coast during the last week of September, but if there is some damage, it probably won’t reveal itself for a couple of weeks. Overall, I think we’ll be OK this year — and certainly better than this time last year when the south central states took a heavy hit due to bad weather during harvest.”

Mr. Walker said that when the final 2009 crop figures came in from Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, between 200 million and 300 million pounds of sweet potatoes had been destroyed. The majority of that figure is expected to make a rebound this year.

The council is currently working hard to resolve some final details with the American Heart Association to enter into a contractual agreement that will allow sweet potato shippers in the United States to use the Heart Smart Heart- Check mark, a symbol that verifies that food has been certified to meet the American Heart Association’s criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol. To be certified, a product must meet specific nutrition levels, and sweet potatoes meet those criteria.

“The American Heart Association has not done a lot with fresh produce in its Heart-Check … program,” said Mr. Walker. “It just has not received many applications from fruit and vegetable organizations yet. We are currently working on some final details required under its strict licensing arrangement. When I received a copy of the agreement, I was somewhat concerned about a couple of issues and not sure the sweet potato industry could meet them.”

Mr. Walker called a telephone meeting of the board to discuss the issues, which include pre-approval from the American Heart Association to display the logo on display or point-of-purchase materials and some liability concerns. The agreement also restricts shippers from using the logo on product shipped to other countries, which could be a problem for companies that ship sweet potatoes to Canada.

“This restriction would mean that shippers would have to use different cartons in Canada, and they don’t always have control of where the product goes once it’s in the hands of distributors,” added Mr. Walker. “These issues are being worked out, however, and we are on the precipice of finalizing the agreement. Ideally, we would have liked for it to have been finalized in time to introduce the initiative at the [Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit convention Oct. 15-18], but we don’t know if that is possible. We do have faith that it will be finalized in time for the start of strong holiday movement.”

He added that as an umbrella organization, the council would pay one primary fee under the agreement. All U.S. shippers are eligible to participate at a cost of an additional $1,000 each and with the agreement that the American Heart Association has the right to pre-approve all labels that include the Heart-Check symbol.

“Sweet potatoes are considered the most nutritional vegetable, and the ability to use this symbol will position us well with any group and consumer interested in health and nutrition,” said Mr. Walker.

In further promotional efforts, the council recently signed an agreement with ARA Content, a provider of content to media venues. “It guarantees that each article will appear on over 400 web sites, mostly newspapers and others with high consumer credibility,” said Mr. Walker. “We have scheduled two releases — one in January and another near the Easter holiday, as these are times when sweet potatoes can use an extra promotional boost.”

Mr. Walker concurred with other sweet potato professionals about french fry cuts helping to drive the demand high. But he added that attention to the nutritional value of the product is also helping, “as is the terrific taste of sweet potatoes. This combination of factors is coming together to help drive the increased consumption, and growers are reporting that they can feel it in the increases in their shipments.”