USPB Launches Potato Nutrition Campaign In China

Published online: Oct 30, 2006 USPB
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DENVER - Negative publicity about fries and acrylamide created a powerful challenge for the U.S. potato industry in China this past year. To promote the positive attributes of potatoes, the United States Potato Board initiated a large-scale nutrition campaign, which contributed to a 222 percent increase in potato exports to China.

In March 2005, the World Health Organization issued an alert about acrylamide, a carcinogen of which many foods contain trace amounts. a lengthy list of foods with detectable levels in the WHO report included fried potatoes. But what made the strongest impact to fry sales was when the Chinese Ministry of Health posted information on their website cautioning consumers against those foods on the WHO list.

With this, negative reports about potatoes and potato products, fresh or frozen, mounted in the Chinese media. By April 2005, 75 percent of all media reports about potatoes were negative.

"Newly found affluence and domestic food safety scares have increased Chinese consumers' awareness of nutrition and food safety issues," said Susan Weller, USPB international marketing manager. "In some cases, however, information is misinterpreted or overstated by the media."

At the peak of the Chinese media frenzy surrounding potatoes, fry imports from all over the world decreased. KFC, China's largest quick service restaurant with 1,500 outlets, reacted by removing fries from its combo menus. This was partly motivated by their plan to create "Xin Kuai Can" or a new "healthy" non-western fast food image. This partial menu omission caused significant impact - October 2005 fry imports from the United States decreased 39 percent.

In February 2006, the USPB responded, aggressively launching a Chinese Nutrition Campaign designed to achieve three main objectives: 1) Counterbalance the negative publicity on potato nutrition in the media, 2) Stop quick service restaurants from deleting fries from combo meals, while convincing KFC to revert its decision, and 3) Provide consumers with positive potato nutrition information.

"One of the keys to our campaigns success was consistently providing the media with scientifically supported, positive potato information," said Weller.

The USPB leveraged USDA Market Access Program funds to initiate the large-scale nutrition campaign with heavy media outreach. This included a seven-city media tour that partnered with local experts to "talk potatoes," enticing Chinese media attendance.

The USPB worked with the China Potato Association, whose Secretary General delivered a speech about potato development in China. The Vice President of China's Institute of Food Science and Technology made presentations on the potato nutritional profile and their benefits. USPB also invited local experts on traditional Chinese medicine to share their experience on the benefits of potatoes from a diet therapy angle.

This campaign made a solid impact on positive attitudes towards potatoes and purchasing behavior. KFC China regained confidence upon being notified about the USPB's large scale nutrition effort and re-introduced U.S. fries to their value menus on January 9, 2006.

"USPB held a number of meetings with KFC China executives," Weller explained. "But what really made the difference was seeing the impact and scope of the USPB nutrition campaign."

According to media clipping services, positive media coverage on potatoes increased to 42 percent in June 2006 from 5 percent (composite March - October 2005). The real proof of USPB's nutrition campaign success, however, is in the numbers, comparing December 2005 to May 2006. There was a drastic 222 percent rebound of U.S. frozen potato exports, and the United States regained a dominant position, with a 70.4 percent share of the fry market from 47.9 percent.