Conagra tries to reengineer the sweet potato

Conagra tries to reengineer the sweet potato
May 24, 2010
ConAgra Foods hopes to make the sweet potato a modern-day equivalent of its stepbrother, the russet potato. In the mid-1940s, entrepreneur J. R. Simplot developed the frozen French fry, thus elevating the russet from kitchen staple to multibillion-dollar franchise"

As part of this effort ConAgra started breeding activities with scientists at the Louisiana State University AgCenter and elsewhere to change some characteristics of sweet potatoes, including shape and sugar content.

"We're wanting to deliver to [ConAgra's] factory something that looks like a brick,"says AgCenter researcher Don LaBonte as he brandishes a sweet potato shaped more like a croissant. "We don't want them with that pretty shape like you get in the grocery store."

"We're witnessing a revolution in the making, not unlike potatoes"bred to become French fries, says Jan de Weerd, a potato expert and vice president of global agricultural strategy and services at ConAgra's Lamb Weston potato-processing unit.

ConAgra doesn't expect sweet-potato fries to take over McDonald's Corp. menus anytime soon. But the Omaha, Neb., company is spending $155 million to build a sweet-potato processing plant in Delhi, La., with the help of a federal income tax credit and more than $30 million from the state of Louisiana.

When it opens this fall, ConAgra's first new U.S. plant in years will turn sweet potatoes into French fries, waffle fries and other products. ConAgra thinks it is the first factory dedicated to sweet potatoes in North America. H.J. Heinz Co., McCain Foods Ltd. and other companies also produce sweet-potato fries and other products but use standard potato-processing plants.
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