UPDATED: Potatoes: The misunderstood vegetable(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 9) ORLANDO, Fla. — An image problem continues to trouble all sectors of the spud industry, according to the Alliance for Potato Research and Education, which says the U.S. Department of Agriculture is contributing to the problem.

The issue crops up at the government’s MyPlate page on vegetables : according to the USDA, potatoes aren’t just a vegetable, they are a starchy vegetable.

To address this, a quintet of heavy hitters joined forces in 2011 with the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Potato Board, Denver, to create the non-profit alliance.

Five companies founded the alliance:

  • McCain Foods;
  • Lamb Weston/ConAgra;
  • Heinz/Ore-Ida;
  • Cavendish Farms; and
  • Simplot.

Maureen Storey, formerly senior vice president for science policy with the American Beverage Association, is the alliance’s president and chief executive officer. She has been on the job since June 2011. Storey has an extensive background in nutrition and dietary research, with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota.

Growers, processors and distributors packed into a conference room at the 2012 Potato Expo in early January to hear Storey’s update on the organization. Still in the gearing-up mode, the alliance expects to launch a website early this year.

The group’s goal is to remove “starchy” from USDA’s description of a potato.

“We need to get the information into the literature so the dietary guidelines and the consumer messages that come out of the dietary guidelines are balanced in their science,” Storey said.

The alliance already commissioned research — with alarming results, she said.

Only 18% of survey respondents said they consider potatoes to be vegetables. The remaining 82% described them as starch. In a similar survey question, 33% of respondents said they did not think the word vegetable accurately describes potatoes.

Storey said the alliance is reviewing government data and planning to collect additional information to change that perception.

The alliance has four program areas in its mission: science/research, outreach to growers and members, education of consumer influencers, and partnership development.

Key partnerships already formed include the American Dietetic Association Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, USDA’s Agriculture Research Service, and the USDA’s MyPlate initiative.

Storey said grassroots work by the potato council and potato board in 2011 helped gain Congressional approval of a measure to keep potatoes in the nation’s school nutrition programs. That was a crucial victory, but she said the issue is not dead.

“School lunches will come up again in the farm bill,” she told the standing-room-only crowd. “We need to get the research in hand and get it out there.”

She cited the potassium content of potatoes as an example.

“When you say potassium everyone thinks of bananas,” Storey said. “Potatoes have far more potassium per serving — 560 milligrams compared to 358 milligrams — but people don’t know it, yet.”