P.E.I. potato exporters, growers 'insulted' by feds' offer to find new markets for excess spuds

An offer by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to help find international markets for surplus potatoes on P.E.I. has angered some growers and exporters who say the federal agency is suggesting markets where the Island already ships potatoes.

'They cannot replace the volume of lost sales that we have to the U.S. and Puerto Rico'

A potato convoy in December in Charlottetown carried the message of how big the surplus of potatoes would be, because of the ban on exports to the U.S. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

An offer by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to help find international markets for surplus potatoes on Prince Edward Island has angered some growers and exporters on the Island. 

A vice-president with the federal agency, Sylvie Lapointe, highlighted the efforts in a CFIA presentation to P.E.I. legislators on Dec. 17.

"We've been engaging with our counterparts in other countries, working with our embassies abroad and our market-access colleagues within the CFIA," Lapointe told the committee.

"A number of countries we're working with to open — not only to table stock potatoes, but also potentially to seed potatoes — and those include countries like Uruguay and Jamaica."

Sylvie Lapointe, a vice-president with the federal agency, highlighted the efforts in a CFIA presentation to P.E.I. legislators on Dec. 17. (P.E.I. Legislature )

The CFIA suspended trade in fresh potatoes to the U.S. on Nov. 22.

The agency said its move was in response to American concerns about the discovery of potato wart in two P.E.I. fields in October, and the fear the U.S. would impose a ban of its own. 

Markets for decades

The chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board said he was shocked to hear Uruguay and Jamaica mentioned, as Island growers have been shipping potatoes to both for decades. 

"My father has been shipping to Uruguay for at least 40 years," John Visser said, pointing out that an eastern P.E.I. grower is still shipping there this year.

"There's been potatoes going to Jamaica for at least 30 years on an ongoing basis."

Exporter Ryan McKenna says P.E.I. has been exporting potatoes for decades and if there was a potential market for potatoes, they would already be shipping there. This is a boat being loaded in Summerside in 2007. (CBC )

Potato exporter Ryan McKenna of McKenna Brothers in Cardigan, P.E.I., said he was also surprised by the CFIA comments. 

"Honestly, when we heard that interview with CFIA, when they listed Jamaica and Uruguay and some other countries, as an industry, we were honestly insulted, and really offended," McKenna said. 

"I really think it speaks to the disconnect between the industry here in P.E.I. and the federal officials in Ottawa." 

The P.E.I. Potato Board says the Island ships between $18 and $20 million of potatoes to Puerto Rico. (Submitted by Caribbean Produce)

"P.E.I. has been actively exporting potatoes to these markets for generations and we have longstanding relationships with growers and buyers in these countries," McKenna said.

"So I'm not sure where that comment came from because they should know that we're already doing business in those countries as it is." 

Concerned customers

McKenna said statements from CFIA about the potato wart situation on P.E.I. have made it challenging for his company and other exporters to continue shipping to international markets.

"When CFIA announced the ban, we had shipments in transit going to the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and those containers when they arrived at the destination were subject to long delays and intense examinations," McKenna said. 

McKenna says statements from CFIA about potato wart have made it challenging for his company and other exporters to continue shipping to international markets. (Submitted by Tropical Shipping)

McKenna said CFIA's use of the word "infestation" to describe the situation on P.E.I. has cost his company and growers sales to overseas customers. 

It literally takes years to develop new markets.— Ryan McKenna— Ryan McKenna

"If you go back to the federal government statement back on November 22 claiming that all of P.E.I. is infested with wart, which for the record, is categorically wrong and the recent results of the national wart survey published before Christmas support our position," McKenna said.

"Because of the language used by our federal government, these countries were understandably worried that there was something wrong with these potatoes."

CFIA response

When contacted for more information for its plans on finding new export markets, CFIA said it would not be able to provide a spokesperson for an interview.

However, it did provide a written response.

"The CFIA is engaging with foreign governments to confirm export certification requirements and — if and when necessary — modifying existing export certification arrangements for P.E.I. potatoes. At every opportunity, the CFIA is providing assurances about Canada's risk mitigation measures to secure export arrangements," the statement said.

"The CFIA has confirmed certification arrangements for fresh potatoes with several countries such as Costa Rica, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. The CFIA continues to work closely with Philippine authorities on this matter," it continued.

"The CFIA and [Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada] are working closely with the Canadian potato sector to identify and prioritize work related to opening potential new export markets for fresh potatoes. The negotiation of new market access for any plant product can be very complex and we are keeping stakeholders informed of progress."     

McKenna says he has had to reassure his customers in international markets that P.E.I. potatoes are safe. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Will take years not months

When provided with the list of countries, both the P.E.I. Potato Board and McKenna pointed out that they are all countries where P.E.I. has shipped, or is currently shipping potatoes. 

"That's the other funny thing, CFIA, they talk as if it's easy just to develop new markets," McKenna said. 

"As an industry here, we've been exporting potatoes for decades and decades and decades. We'd like to think that if there's a potential market for potatoes, we'd already be servicing that market." 

The P.E.I. Potato Board says the export ban has blocked the sale of more than 12 million kilograms of potatoes so far. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

McKenna said developing a new market, even if there is interest, won't happen quickly, especially with all the current supply-chain issues around the world. 

"There's a number of import requirements we have to satisfy and phytosanitary regulations. So it's not something that can be done in a week, or a month. It literally takes years to develop new markets," McKenna said.

The federal government has offered $2 million that will "support marketing activities and will help industry to develop long-term strategies to manage future challenges," as part of the $28 million package announced by the agriculture minister in December. 

On Dec. 20, federal Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau announced a $28 million plan to assist P.E.I. farmers affected by a trade suspension in fresh potatoes with the United States. (CBC)

"Long term, yes, there is the opportunity there to to look at some of the markets, but in the short term, right now, it's just really not feasible," McKenna said.

"Our traditional export markets will continue buying potatoes on a fairly consistent basis. But at the end of the day, they cannot replace the volume of lost sales that we have to the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

"We'll continue doing all the export we possibly can, but it still doesn't solve the bigger problem here." 


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.


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