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  March 1st, 2013 | Written by

Trade Cycle March-April ’13

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Japanese kids have always been early adopters of global cultural trends—consider baseball (the country’s national sport) and Santa Claus, whom the Japanese have transformed into a kind of Jewish matchmaker presiding over a Christmas that looks more like Valentine’s Day.

Now Japanese youth are storming fast-food joints to order belly-busting volumes of fried potatoes, disgusting some observers by eating them all, and outraging others by leaving some behind. Blogger Brian Ashcraft reports that one scold took to Twitter to admonish the revelers: “Look, buying 23 large French fries is fine, but you gotta eat them all, you gotta eat every last one.”

Fried potatoes are truly international—whether they make a cameo in Canadian poutine (put to bed beneath blankets of gravy and a kind of cheese), as chips in England, as Belgian fries or a freak Japanese trend. But no matter where you eat them, the global trade cycle of what Americans call “French fries” begins in the Andes. 


1In the 1550s, Spanish infantry encountered the potato in the arid Peruvian highlands. Shipped back to Europe, the tuber slowly grew in popularity, imbedding itself in Ireland, for example, as the chief staple. “No London merchant ever formed a new company to trade potatoes,” writes Steven Topik, my Global Trade colleague and co-author (with Kenneth Pomeranz) of The World That Trade Created. “But crises created needs to which the potato was beautifully suited; today, potatoes are the second-largest food crop in the world.”


2In 1875, Luther Burbank, a self-taught Massachusetts botanist, cultivated what we now call the Idaho potato. When blight wiped out the Irish potato crop in the middle of the nineteenth century, it was Burbank’s Russet, shipped across the Atlantic, that ended years of famine—but only after one million Irish died and another million fled the island, many for the U.S. Burbank’s potato followed the path of Americans themselves—westward with Burbank to California, Colorado and Idaho.


The Idaho Potato Commission website describes local growing conditions in terms that might apply equally to the Andes of Peru: “snowcapped mountains provide the perfect elevation,” “free-flowing rivers contribute cool, clear water,” “rich, volcanic soil” and “warm days and cool nights.”


Idaho remains famous for its potatoes—it says so right on the state license plate.


5But Idaho is also rightly famous for global trader J.R. Simplot, the man who ran away from home in 1923 at age 14 and bought his first potato-processing machine a few years later. Simplot learned the principles of international logistics while supplying dehydrated potatoes to U.S. troops serving around the globe in World War II.


In 1967, Simplot expanded on that vision, cutting a deal with Ray Kroc to produce the fries that flowed through the McDonald’s international burger empire.


Simplot picks up potatoes in massive 18-wheelers that thread two-lane country roads throughout Idaho bound for the company’s plant in Caldwell, Idaho. Growers farther afield ship via the Boise Valley Railroad, one of 30 shortlines run by Kansas-based Watco.


“Twenty years ago, I could have told you that every McDonald’s French fry you ate in Mexico was grown in Idaho,” says Brad Foster of Foster Land and Cattle in Rigby, Idaho, a company that produces for J.R. Simplot. But these days, Simplot and Canada’s McCain Foods also grow potatoes overseas to satisfy McDonald’s desire for local sourcing.


Simplot grows potatoes for the chain’s China stores right in the People’s Republic, opening that nation’s first potato-processing plant in 1993. In December, when members of the Indian parliament charged the company was importing foreign potatoes into that country, McDonald’s quickly dismissed the allegation. Company officials explained that, yes, Simplot routinely rejected inferior potatoes, but had in fact worked with local farmers to grow the “process-grade varieties” it used in all Indian stores.


10Simplot potato products are shipped around the world, whether through the Port of Portland or from its foreign processing plants. The company’s Australian unit, for example, serves markets throughout Southeast Asia, including Malaysia—where the Idaho Potato Commission promotes the tuber-centric menu.


The French fry name can occasionally become political. When France refused to OK the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, North Carolina restaurant owner Neal Rowland renamed his fried potatoes “freedom fries”; Republicans in the U.S. House of Reps followed suit, amending the menu in the House cafeteria. These days, they’re called French fries again.



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