AUGUSTA, Maine -- New England-based retailers are lauding a state-mandated certification program for Maine potato growers that was started this season to combat problems with product quality.
The certification program, imposed by the State Department of Agriculture here, is an attempt to prevent poor quality potatoes from reaching the marketplace, which has been happening because of the unethical practices of some growers, said Ed McGlaughlin, who is the state's commissioner of agriculture.
Area retailers told SN that the certification is a welcome development.
"We believe the inspections are greatly needed," said Sue Pierter, spokeswoman for Hannaford Bros., Portland, Maine. "Inspections are a very important part of getting Maine back to where it was."
The problem is that potatoes that are not intended for consumption at consumers' tables have been making their way to supermarkets. The varieties include those intended for seeding or processing.
One retailer said the new plan for inspections should help the situation, but only if enforcement is effective.
"I definitely do think it's a good thing," said Richard Daniels, produce buyer, Stop 'n Shop, Quincy, Mass. "Just make sure that these inspections have teeth and have meaning. That would by my message to the [agriculture department]."
Commissioner McGlaughlin said retailers should also be responsible for knowing which kinds of potatoes they are selling. Much of the poor quality product is moved through terminal markets or is prebagged, he said.
But whatever the circumstances of how it is distributed, "All [consumers] will remember is the Maine name" when they encounter bad potatoes, he said.
Maine's production of potatoes has decreased by half in the past 20 years, which McGlaughlin and others said is at least partly due to the quality problems.
Other states, such as Washington, have meanwhile increased their tuber production and are performing well in the market, Daniels of Stop 'n Shop said. In response, Daniels has been stocking fewer Maine potatoes, replacing them with products from elsewhere.
Other retailers in the New England area have continued using Maine potatoes, but have become more selective about buying from that state, said Pierter of Hannaford Bros.