During Tim O’Conner’s final address to the United States Potato Board at the Annual Meeting held at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., in March, he told board members that while the board has done great things, there are many challenges ahead to confront. At least one of these challenges may be larger than what the board is currently ready to handle.
The outgoing CEO, who departed the USPB after 14 years to take the helm of the fledgling Avocados from Mexico marketing agency on April 1, first explained why he
felt good about the state of the industry—which included six years in a row of exports topping a billion dollars, in spite of the small size of the industry as a whole. However, O’Conner identified several challenges ahead for the industry to face, including lifestyle changes, mealtime changes, the affect of the recession and, arguably, the biggest and meanest of the gorillas in the room, obesity.
‘Obesity is going to be a huge challenge for this industry. I don’t think you’re ready for this.’
“Obesity is going to be a huge challenge for this industry,” he says. “I don’t think you’re ready for this. I think you’ve got some things in place, but there is a lot more to do.”
He pointed out that the 60 percent of potato production that includes chips and fries—fries at 40 percent, chips at 20—is on the “hot list” for obesity.
Citing the recent attempt by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to ban all sugary drinks over 16 oz in the city, O’Conner warned the board about “those who believe they know better.”
He says those kinds of people believe that only a handful of foods are the root cause of obesity—and chips and fries are a part of that list.
“And if they were king or queen, they would simply take those products out of the food system, and we wouldn’t have obesity. Those people are going to spend a lot of their time trying to get that job done. They’re going to blame you. They’re going to blame your products. You’re not ready for this.”
He urged the potato industry to get ready for the coming tsunami.
He also explained that consumers hold the image of the potato as “outdated.” Growers must find ways to make potatoes fit into the busy lifestyle, where neither parent has the time to stay at home and prepare time-consuming meals.
“To do that, we have to think about our business differently,” he says. “You’re investing tens of millions of dollars...to own the equipment, own the land and put the crop in the ground, and you’re dependent upon the consumer doing what she used to do, while all these other things are changing around you.”
Growers must give consumers something different—higher-value, higher-margin products they don’t have today, rather than commodity products.
The USPB is currently searching for a new CEO, with an anticipated hire date by July 1.