World, not just US, wants 'fries with that'

French fries make a culinary conquest of the world - and America isn't the big exporter

Add another item to America's ballooning trade deficit: the French fry.

As with cars, steel, and toys, the United States now imports more frozen potato products than it exports. It's a blow to the prestige of the nation that commercialized the frozen French fry.

But rather than bemoaning the surge in foreign spuds, America's potato industry is focused with deep-fried intensity on how to boost exports to countries where demand is booming.

If capitalism and democracy are the great levers of globalization, it seems the thin-sliced potato serves as its Allen wrench.

"We're still the largest French-fry market," boasts Chuck Plummer, an economist with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The deficit "just means that worldwide consumption is increasing."

Consider:

• The world's largest French-fry processing company lies in Canada, not the US. McCain Foods Ltd., whose corporate mantra is "One World. One Fry," runs 30 plants worldwide that produce nearly one-third of the globe's French fries.

• The Netherlands exports more of the sliced tubers than any other country.

• Peru, where the potato originated some 10,000 years ago, imports most of its French fries from Argentina, not the US. America's potato growers recently shut down their promotional campaign there, citing a shrinking market share.

• The fastest-growing fry consumers are the Chinese.

"The French-fry market is a global market, and it's controlled by global market forces and a few global players," says Bruce Huffaker, publisher of North American Potato Market, a weekly newsletter in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Americans remain the biggest French-fry consumers, averaging 60 pounds of frozen potatoes a year per person - almost all of them in that familiar lengthwise cut. That's twice as much as 30 years ago, and more than all the fresh potatoes Americans eat in a year. Potato chips? Forget about it. Americans pack away more than three times as many pounds of fries than of chips.

But other countries are catching up. Although official figures are hard to come by, the spread of McDonald's tells the story.

The world's largest fast-food chain operates in 121 countries. The US retains the densest concentration, with roughly one McDonald's for every 21,000 residents, according to the company's website. But New Zealand now boasts 1 for every 26,000 residents; Canada, 1 for every 27,000; Australia, 1 for every 28,000.

"There's a possibility that other countries will rival the United States," says Fred Zerza, spokesman for the J.R. Simplot Co., a potato processor based in Boise, Idaho. "Not in the near future, but people love French fries."

Just add the right seasoning. McDonald's, for example, flavors its fries differently depending on the country. It adds a small amount of beef flavoring in the US - but omits it in India (for vegetarian reasons).

No one's sure where deep-fried spuds originated. France popularized them more than a century ago. During World War I, French-speaking Belgians introduced them to US soldiers, who dubbed them "French fries." But America commercialized them.

In the 1950s, J.R. Simplot found a way to mass-produce fries by cutting, partially cooking, then freezing the potatoes. The process dovetailed with the emerging fast-food industry and consumption soared. Today, nearly all American restaurants - not just fast-food eateries - serve frozen French fries.

Growth has tapered off in recent years, thanks in part to competition from other menu items, such as cheese sticks. So growers and processors are looking abroad.

"The plants in the Pacific Northwest can make more money selling their product to China than they can to the Midwest or East Coast," says Robert Russell, international marketing director for the National Potato Promotion Board, based in Denver. Growers in the Pacific Northwest, who still produce more potatoes for fries than growers any other region in the world, supply the western US and ship the remainder to the Pacific Rim.

Those exports have allowed potato growers in the Canadian prairie to move in and supply the eastern half of the country.

Simplot, for example, is building a processing plant near Winnipeg to serve the eastern US.

America's French-fry deficit won't go away soon. "It's a very small margin," says Mr. Plummer of the USDA. But "it will probably continue for this year, too."

One reason: Low prices caused growers to cut production last year.

"I don't think there's going to be any end to our French-fry production," adds Plummer of USDA. "We're still the big boy in French fries."

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