WASHINGTON With a nudge from a U.S. attache, the Serbian government changed its rules last year to allow the first shipment of that great American snack that most everyone has come to love: popcorn.
For U.S. officials, it marked a clear win in the increasingly competitive global trade wars. They say its a perfect example of how federal efforts to promote popcorn around the world are paying off. But amid rising exports and tight federal budgets, opponents say its a waste of money. They contend that the industry is healthy overseas and at home, with each American consuming an average of 52 quarts of popcorn each year.
This year the Chicago-based Popcorn Board, created by an act of Congress in 1996, expects to spend nearly a half-million dollars on international promotion. It will target trade shows, school classrooms and primary household food buyers, typically women ages 18-54 with children at home.
The issue is part of the talks as Congress tries to write a new farm bill that would determine how much taxpayers will pay for agriculture commodities. And while popcorn is a small-ticket item compared with wheat, rice, sugar and other mega-crops, opponents say its wrong to subsidize the advertising costs of any private business operating outside the United States.
With the United States already more than $16 trillion in debt, it just seems ludicrous, especially when popcorn producers are able to sell popcorn abroad on their own, said Richard McKenzie, a retired professor of economics and management at the University of California in Irvine who wrote a book on the rising cost of popcorn in 2008.
U.S. popcorn exports topped 232 million pounds last year, with a total value of $78 million. That continues a modest increase over the past few years, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University.
Mexico is the top U.S. market, accounting for one-third of all exported popcorn. Thats followed by China, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Russia, said Gary Brester, a professor in the department of agricultural economics and economics at Montana State University in Bozeman whos studied the industry. By contrast, he said, the U.S. imported only 1.5 million pounds of popcorn last year, most of it from Argentina.
In an attempt to boost popcorn sales, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year gave the Popcorn Board more than $250,000 for promotion. Taxpayers have been paying to push popcorn sales since 1999, three years after Congress passed the Popcorn Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act.
Deirdre Flynn, the executive director of the Popcorn Board, said the boards 2012 budget called for spending $480,000 on international promotion and another $338,000 on promotion within the country. Activities included a public relations program to promote popcorn as a healthy snack in Mexico, the Caribbean, southeast Asia and Costa Rica.