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Even the Bureaucrats Admit to a Case of ‘Overkill’ : Not-So-Sweet Tale About Sugar

Times Staff Writer

Now that the U.S. government has cracked down on HP Sauce, can Wheetabix be far behind?

Federal authorities have banned imports of the popular British meat sauce and hundreds of other food items containing minute amounts of sugar in an effort to protect U.S. sugar producers from foreign competition.

Shipments of Italian ice cream flavorings, Korean soup mix, Australian meringue, Israeli pizzas and Japanese furikake seasoning have been stopped at the dock. Unless President Reagan acts, these delicacies will be off-limits to Americans until October.

Even the bureaucrats who wrote the rule and U.S. sugar executives admit that the ban went too far. They never intended, they say, to force Britons in America to suffer through bangers and mash or the breakfast dish of kidneys without HP Sauce to enhance (dare we say disguise?) their flavor. Bangers and mash is a British low cuisine concoction of pork sausage and mashed potatoes.

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“It was overkill,” conceded Dave Carter, president of the U.S. Beet Sugar Assn. “It wasn’t intended to include all these little products.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, architects of the ban, said a new regulation has been prepared for the President’s signature. It should get the marinated mussels and the pickled onions off the boat, they said.

Scandal Threatens Merchants

The sugar scandal, which threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of specialty food merchants across the nation, has its roots in the huge disparity between U.S. and world market sugar prices. The current world price is 2.6 cents a pound and falling; the domestic price, artificially maintained by the U.S. government, is 21.1 cents.

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In May, 1982, U.S. authorities banned imports of bulk sugar. But exporting nations and their U.S. agents devised a number of dodges to get around the ban. Crates of sugar mixed with small plastic balls were delivered under U.S. Customs classifications for plastic. The sugar was then sifted out. Cocoa and pancake mixes were prepared in America without sugar, then shipped north and blended with cheap Canadian sugar and re-imported.

As the crisis deepened, Agriculture Department officials sprang into action. They rewrote the ban to stop the various mixtures. But, to ensure that they wouldn’t be outsmarted again, they slapped a strict quota on Customs category 183.05, a catchall grouping of “edible preparations.” The move was taken to prevent clever importers from extracting the sugar from lemon curd and baked beans and selling it on the black market.

President Reagan signed the quota proclamation Jan. 28. By March 5, the quotas had been filled and all further shipments were turned away at the dock or forced into bonded government warehouses.

Into the gaping 183.05 category fell seasoned seaweed and ramen noodles with soup base.

Richard Gunde, sales manager for Los Angeles-based Sam Yang USA, one of the nation’s biggest importers of Korean food products, said his firm has 230,000 packages of ramen noodles with soup base locked up in a warehouse in Carson. The soup base contains 0.5% sugar.

The shipment, worth about $70,000, is causing shortages of the Korean kitchen staple in Los Angeles-area groceries.

“To give you an idea how silly this is, if we separated the noodles from the little package of soup base and brought them in separately, we’d have no problem. We could bring in tons of them. There isn’t much logic behind it,” Gunde said.

Inundated With Calls

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Lovers of Italian gelato ice cream are facing a long summer as well. The flavoring base imported from Italy contains as much as 37% sugar and is thus contraband in the war on foreign sweeteners.

“It’s absurd,” said Pam Pryce of Fabio Imports in Torrance, which brings in the flavoring. “This is going to destroy a whole industry. It’s really tragic.”

Gordon Patty of the Agriculture Department’s sugar group said the agency has been inundated with wrathful calls from importers and specialty merchants. He acknowledged that maybe the department had goofed in writing the ban so broadly.

“We’ve been working on this. There will be something shortly revising the procedure. We’re trying to satisfy the importers, but there are so many of these items, it’s not going to be easy,” Patty said.

Meanwhile, he added, the U.S. International Trade Commission, in a further attempt to prop up the domestic sugar industry, is considering imposing quotas on a broad range of imported goods containing sugar. That’s where Wheetabix and other prepared breakfast cereals come in. And, yes, biscuits and sweets as well.

If that happens, moaned Harry Ingram of The Tudor House in Santa Monica, you can kiss his shop goodby.

“That would affect 70% of our grocery business and eventually run us out of business,” said the proprietor of the British grocery and tea shop. He had been one of the biggest street dealers in the now illegal HP Sauce.

“It’s really ironic that this is happening under an Administration that professes to believe in free trade and all that. If there really are people bringing in sugar with little plastic balls, then go after them. But leave us little guys alone.”

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