Plenty of battles remain for sugar producers

by Ron Sterk
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Trade and consumer perception remain key issues affecting the market.

While sugar producers appear to have won a major fight to limit unrestricted sugar imports from Mexico, they continue to face battles on trade and foreign sugar subsidies, regulations, taxes, consumer perception and others that in time may change the face of the U.S. sugar industry.

U.S. sugar producers undoubtedly scored a huge victory when late last year the U.S. Department of Commerce and the government of Mexico entered into agreements suspending antidumping and countervailing duties over 50% on U.S. imports of sugar from Mexico. That case began March 28, 2014, with petitions filed by the American Sugar Coalition, made up of U.S. sugar beet and cane growers and most processors and refiners. While key elements of that case won’t be concluded until late October of this year (with other aspects of the case decided even later), the U.S. and Mexican sugar industries are operating as if the suspension agreements are and will be in place going forward.

The suspension agreements stabilize the U.S. sugar supply and, according to most, bulk refined sugar prices in the United States because of a quota, shipping patterns and minimum pricing defined for U.S. imports of sugar from Mexico.

Many in the trade see U.S. sugar prices holding in a range of 32c to 36c a lb f.o.b. during the five years the suspension agreements are in effect, barring a major weather event or other market disruption. Current price quotes for both this year and next is mostly in the range of 33c to 35c a lb. Those prices are viewed as too high by most buyers and a bit low by some processors who say they need at least 35c a lb to have enough margin to provide profit, reinvestment and the like. Mexico, perhaps, seems happiest with the suspension agreements. While that country no longer may ship unlimited amounts of duty free sugar to the United States as it did in the first seven years of the North American Free Trade Agreement, it now has a minimum price and a known (and sizable) quota that will allow producers in Mexico to adapt as the two markets become more integrated.

A number of speakers at the International Sweetener Symposium, held July 31 to Aug. 5 in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M., addressed the ongoing suspension agreements, but also noted other challenges facing sugar producers. The symposium is sponsored by the American Sugar Alliance, which is made up of cane and beet growers, sugar refiners and processors and allied industries, most of whom were involved in the petitions that resulted in the suspension agreements.

A key topic was the Trans-Pacific Partnership in which the latest negotiations were concluded without a final agreement just before the symposium began. A key element of the TPP was Australia’s attempt to gain significant access to the U.S. sugar market. Currently, Australia has an annual quota of about 85,000 tonnes under World Trade Agreement provisions. That country sought at least 500,000 tonnes of export access and one U.S. cane refiner — Louis Dreyfus Commodities’ Imperial Sugar Co. — broke ranks with the U.S. industry and even suggested Australia be allowed to export about 750,000 tonnes, or up to half of what Mexico is allowed to export to the United States, according to press reports.

A large allowance for Australia would have in fact been most detrimental to Mexico, which would have seen its suspension agreement quota slashed significantly. It appears Australia will get additional access, unofficially around 150,000 tonnes total, which is an amount both the United States and Mexico seemingly can live with. The final quota won’t be known until the TPP is concluded later this year or next year.

While most of the symposium’s sessions focused on international trade, domestic politics and policy, issues such as the growing number of cities and states taxing “sugary” (sugar and corn sweeteners) beverages, labeling of food containing bioengineered ingredients, dietary guidelines recommending lower sweetener consumption and the adding of added sugar and per cent daily value of added sugar to Nutrition Facts labels were only touched upon. A bit more attention was given to consumer attitudes toward sweeteners and sugar specifically, which may be most critical in the years ahead.

Craig Ruffolo, vice-president, commodity specialist at McKeany-Flavell Co., discussed the public relations facing sugar related to health and suggested the industry should proactively promote the benefits of natural sugar rather than reactively defend negative attacks. He also said he sees the United States becoming a two-tiered sugar market at some point, with non-G.M.O. sugar commanding a premium to G.M.O. sugar (which includes nearly all domestic beet sugar) as consumers’ concerns about G.M.O.s increase.

Matt Wilson, manager of global consumer insights for General Mills, said corn sweeteners and refined sugar both were “falling from favor” in consumers views, although high-fructose corn syrup was viewed much more negatively. But he also noted that sugar may “get a free pass” because it is seen as a natural product, and naturalness was a key factor in the current wellness trend dominating consumer conversations. At the same time, he said, “While natural sweeteners carry a positive halo, F.D.A.-proposed ‘added sugar’ labels may lower subjective differences. Consumers want information. The sugar industry has a great story to tell. It just needs to tell it and let them make their own decisions.”

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