LINCOLNTON The tension between sugar farmers and confectioners in the U.S. took center stage Monday as U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry toured the Lucky Country soft licorice plant.
Lucky Country, which employs 44 people at its Lincolnton headquarters, sells its “Aussie-style” licorice to retailers here and abroad, including Harris Teeter, Costco, Walmart and The Dollar Tree. The company is part of the National Confectioners Association, which is pushing Congress to amend the 2012 Farm Bill to lift limits on how much sugar can be imported to the U.S.
Confectioners like Lucky Country say removing those limits will make it less expensive to manufacture their products. But U.S. sugar producers in Florida, Minnesota and elsewhere say existing policies protect American jobs by shielding sugar growers from cheap foreign imports.
Sugar users including confectioners generate more than 600,000 jobs nationwide, including about 16,900 jobs in North Carolina, said Jennifer Cummings, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Sugar Reform, an alliance of food and beverage companies and consumer organizations.
Limiting foreign competition, she says, artificially raises the price of sugar.
“It’s a cost that can really hamper their ability to do business … and be able to create jobs in the communities where they operate,” Cummings said.
A number of U.S.-based confectioners are moving their manufacturing plants overseas. Hershey recently moved production to Mexico, while Jolly Rancher and Mentos have moved manufacturing to Canada.
“Canada advertises ‘Come to us, we have cheap sugar,’ and Mexico says ‘Come to us, we have cheap labor,’ ” said Kelsey Freeman, public policy coordinator for the National Confectioners Association.
The U.S. consumed 11.4 million tons of sugar in fiscal 2011-12, and roughly two-thirds of it was produced in the U.S., said Tom Earley, an economist for the Sweetener Users Association and a support of sugar reform.
Lucky Country Chairman and CEO Bill Henry said the company hopes to expand operations. It currently manufacturers the weight of eight fully loaded Boeing 747 jumbo jets in licorice every year, said Henry.
McHenry said he supports changing import restrictions as a way to create more jobs by lowering the price of sugar. Like other Republicans, he sees the restrictions as an example of government regulation that makes U.S. businesses less competitive.
“We want to change these policies so we can compete and have more manufacturing jobs in the U.S.,” he said.
On the other hand, the American Sugar Alliance argues that the existing U.S. sugar policy has helped America’s sugar farmers, processors and refiners create 142,000 jobs and generate $20 billion a year. The government does not provide subsidy checks to sugar farmers in the U.S.
McHenry’s Democratic challenger Patsy Keever was preparing for a debate with McHenry Monday night and could not immediately be reached.