Booming U.S. potato exports are an example of how free trade agreements can open markets for U.S. products – and fuel cultural trends abroad.
South Korean consumers have fallen hard for potatoes.
In 2013, a group of teenagers in South Korea made international news when they were booted from a McDonald’s after buying $250 in French fries. The teens had hoped to host a “potato party” – a fad then sweeping South Korea and Japan.
Now the latest Korean food craze is “honey butter” potato chips. Introduced in August 2014 by the Haetae Confectionery & Food Co., the salty-sweet snacks are a national obsession, endorsed by celebrities and K-Pop stars, and sometimes in such scant supply that chip scalpers have created their own market. Vice recently reported that two bags of the coveted chips sold on eBay for $103.50.
Among the chief beneficiaries of the current Korean passion for potatoes are U.S. potato growers and processors, who’ve seen their exports explode in recent years. According to the U.S. Potato Board, U.S. potato exports hit a record high of $1.76 billion in 2014, shipping out 1,643,618 metric tons of potatoes. South Korea is now among the top global destinations for U.S. potatoes, after Japan, Canada and Mexico. The Potato Board reported that exports to Korea grew by 87,000 metric tons – or 13 percent – from 2013 to 2014 alone.
Many variables account for why some food trends take off and others don’t. But U.S. exporters credit one factor in particular for boosting the wide availability of potatoes in the Korean market: free trade.