Sugar Shortage talk taken with grain of salt

St. Paul Pioneer PressĀ 

Sugar producers accuse major U.S. food companies of crying wolf over a recent claim that "our nation will virtually run out of sugar" unless the government allows greater imports.

General Mills, ConAgra and other large candymakers and food companies signed an Aug. 5 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, complaining that sugar was growing scarce and that protectionist tariffs must be relaxed, or "consumers will pay higher prices, (and) food manufacturing jobs will be at risk."

That prompted scoffing at the American Sugar Alliance, a trade group for sugar producers, including many in Minnesota, the nation's No. 1 sugar beet state.

"This is not new," spokesman Phillip Hayes said Thursday. "They send a letter about once a month to USDA, saying, 'Oh my gosh, sugar is getting short; we need to raise the import quota.' "

Sugar supplies are much tighter than they were a year ago, USDA figures show, but the outlook has improved since the foodmakers' letter. On Wednesday, the USDA said the upcoming sugar beet and sugar cane harvests look more promising than they did earlier, and in response, the department nearly doubled the predicted size of the end-of-the-year sugar reserve.

Food-industry groups, including Golden Valley-based General Mills, still see a problem.

"The U.S. sugar market is still tight and will need additional imported sugar to meet projected demand," the Sweetener Users Association said in a statement Thursday.