McDonald's looks for new spuds

Looking at varieties for healthy options

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CALDWELL, Idaho — McDonald’s officials are meeting with the Potato Variety Management Institute (PVMI) to talk about potential new varieties of potatoes for French Fries.

Jeanne Debons, executive director of the Potato Variety Management Institute (PVMI), is meeting McDonald’s officials and other officials from within the potato industry in Caldwell, Idaho, Tuesday.

Debons hopes the meeting leads to McDonald’s considering new varieties of potatoes for its French fries. She believes her organization has promising new varieties that will satisfy the fast food restaurant chain’s needs.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to McDonald’s for three years,” Debons said. “It’s very exciting. I really want to make this meeting count.”

The meeting was organized by the Idaho Potato Commission. In addition to officials from McDonald’s, there will be a representative from each of the potato commissions of Washington, Oregon and Idaho and four breeding researchers and scientists from the Tri-State Potato Breeding Program, which is supported by the PVMI.

“There are millions of dollars invested in the breeding, testing and seed growers’ efforts in bringing new varieties to a commercial state,” Debons said. “I would like McDonald’s to understand the costs associated with this effort as well as the need for them to work with us in developing the perfect French fry.”

“Along the way, if we could convinced McDonald’s reps that there are several new varieties that are more sustainable and have better performance than the Burbank Russet and the other varieties they currently rely on. I think this first meeting mostly we’re going to be listening to see what McDonald’s needs.”

The reason McDonald’s is so important is that it drives the potato industry. According to Debons, the majority of Russet potatoes harvested in the U.S. go to French fry production, and the largest part of that goes to McDonald’s.

“It’s the major way in which we consume potatoes, the McDonald’s French fry,” she said.

Debons, who has a doctorate degree in potato plant pathology from OSU, has worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and has worked in marketing in England. She hooked up with the PVMI in July 2006. It had been formed the previous October by the Washington, Oregon and Idaho commissions as a non-profit company.

Debons admits she really didn’t know where the job would lead. Neither did the commissions. She was hired with the understanding that she would develop her post and the PVMI.

“They knew it had to be done, but there were many unknowns at the time,” Debons said.

What was known was that Debons would manage new varieties coming out of Washington State University, Oregon State University, University of Idaho and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Ag Research Service. It was also known the PVMI wanted to find a potato McDonald’s would like.

Debons’ primary work is to license seed growers who want to grow PVMI varieties and collect royalties from the same. She sends the net proceeds from that operation to the breeding researchers and, last October, that amount was $100,000.

The other major part of Debons’ work is marketing and promotion of the varieties that are protected by the universities. She does that by maintaining the Web site, communicating with the universities, and preparing brochures and pamphlets and newsletters. She also mans a booth at potato exhibitions such as the recent Washington-Oregon Potato Conference at Kennewick. The meeting with McDonald’s falls into the marketing category.

If McDonald’s were to end up liking a variety developed by the Tri-State Breeding Program, demand for the variety would go up dramatically. That would change the fortunes of the Pacific Northwest potato industry in a big way. Growers would be able to get greater production on fewer acres with fewer inputs.

“There are new varieties that can yield double the Russet Burbank,” Debons said.

The McDonald’s story is a story of French fries. When Ray Kroc, who gave the world the McDonald’s of today, went to southern California to sell the McDonald brothers a machine back in the 1950s, he noticed the crowds and asked why.

It turned out the people were coming to the original McDonald’s for the French fries. Kroc investigated and learned the secret was not in the frying but in the storage quality of the potatoes. He bought the restaurant, franchised it and conquered the world with French fries.

The key to McDonald’s French fries today remains the storage quality of the potato. The one it uses most is the Russet Burbank, which was discovered by Luther Burbank in the late 1800s.

Debons noted the McDonald’s French fry is especially light colored after frying. That’s because the starches in the potato have not changed to the sugars that cause fries to darken.

“Russet Burbank and several of the varieties have what is called cold sweetening resistance and can be fried out of cold storage,” Debons said. “Russset Burbanks and other new varieties can also be stored over a long period, and this also makes them very attractive to McDonald’s.”

In the eyes of some people, the Russet Burbank has some long-standing problems. It requires a lot of nitrogen and pesticides to grow successfully, and the “green” movement is urging McDonald’s to get away from it for the sake of human health.

Debons believes there are at least three new potatoes to consider that will meet McDonald’s quality standards. She believes they will give McDonald’s the opportunity to please their customers and the green movement.

In side-by-side field trials, the Alpine Russet outperformed the Burbank Russet 554 hundred-weight (CWT) per acre to 456 CWT. It used up to 20 percent less nitrogen, and it produced 81 percent No. 1 spuds to 61 percent.

The Classic Russet produced fewer potatoes per acre (420-444 CWT), but it had 89 percent No. 1 potatoes to 65 percent. It also required up to 20 percent less nitrogen.

The Premier Russet outdid the Burbank Russet 485-441 CWT. It had 84 percent No. 1 potatoes to 62 percent. It had eight percent culls to 25 percent.

The Premier required up to 25 percent less nitrogen and up to 20 percent less phosphorous than the Burbank. And the Premier is resistant to PVY, eliminating the use of a number of pesticide applications that must be used on the Burbank.

“They’re all greener and give a bigger yield,” Debons said.

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