Agricultural Trade Offices: An Exporters Lifeline
By Jill Lee
Since the early 1980s, Agricultural Trade Offices (ATOs) have been on the front line of foreign trade, serving as the U.S. exporters advocate abroad.
Agricultural Trade Offices were created by the Agricultural Trade Act of 1978. The offices are located in regions that are found to offer a strategic marketing advantage for U.S. agricultural exporters.
Recently, AgExporter got a chance to talk with a few ATO directors about the services they provide U.S. exporters. Naturally, each individual brings different skillsand perspectivesto the job. But while their experiences and opinions, all share a common trait: a sense of pride in what they do for our countrys agricultural exporters.
AgExporter interviewed Jeanne Bailey, Deputy Director, ATO Mexico; Willis Collie, Director, ATO Caribbean Basin; Robert Curtis, Director, ATO Milan; George Ferris, Deputy Director, ATO Hong Kong; Marc Lower, Director, ATO Sao Paulo, John H. Wilson, Director, ATO Riyadh.
AgExporter: What is an ATO and what can they do? How are they different from FAS Agricultural Affairs Offices, stationed at U.S. embassies?
Bailey: ATOs were created out of necessity. Prior to the creation of Agricultural Trade Offices, the Agricultural Affairs staff in embassies had to juggle an exceptionally heavy reporting load of supply-and-demand statistics. They also tackled trade policy issues and did marketing as well.
Today, the Agricultural Trade Offices work hand-in-glove with FAS Offices of Agricultural Affairs. We specialize in promoting U.S. agricultural products and helping U.S. exporters gain a foothold in new markets.
Curtis: ATOs differ from country to country. A lot depends on the availability of local information and the kind of services demanded by importers, buyers and exporters located back in the United States.
In general, ATOs can help exporters decide whether to enter a specific market. We can also de-mystify a countrys import procedures and protocols so they can get products safely through customs.
Ag Exporter: What kinds of information services do ATOs provide?
Collie: Every kind you could imagine or want in order to market your products overseas! We build relationships with everyone in our areas of interest, from agricultural bureaucrats to importers and buyers. We pass what we learn on to you.
Our Market Information Report provides a general overview of sales opportunities in a specific country or region. For more detailed information, exporters can also request Market Briefings.
Our FAIRS Report, details local food import laws, labeling requirements, standards and food additive regulations. Our Product and Sector Briefs highlight U.S. agricultural products that we consider well-suited to the region.
Bailey: I dont think theres a better, free information product that is available for new exporters considering doing business with Mexico than our Market Sector Reports and Briefs.
These reports provide an excellent overview of the Mexican market for a given product or sector of products. Information in the report includes where the demand is, how the distribution system works, and what the labeling restrictions are. We distribute copies of these reports at trade shows, seminars, via fax and E-mail. We also publish them on our ATO and FAS websites.
AgExporter: How can you help those who believe their product would sell internationally, but dont know who the key players are in their target sector?
Ferris: We can provide contacts and arrange introductory meetings for firms that have a great product to sell overseas, but dont know whom to tell about it.
ATOs maintain a list of local companies interested in buying or promoting U.S. products, so staff members can arrange introductory meetings. They can also arrange for translators if necessary. In addition, many of our staff members are foreign nationalscitizens of the country where the trade office is located. They can help U.S. exporters communicate with prospective clients.
Lower: I would, however, add something concerning language skills. While were here to help you start, if you plan to stay in the market long, you need to hire staff with language skills as well as foreign experience and inter-cultural insights.
Lower: Marketing is what ATOs do best. For instance, in 1990 when USA Pear, the American pear promotion board, made its first visit to Sao Paulo, we supported its initial market evaluations. A few years later, Brazil was the largest export market for U.S. pears.
Curtis: One of our most successful recent activities in Milan was a "USA Promotional Dinner." I think it helps that an important hotel or restaurant in a major city is identified as the venue.
AgExporter: What about trade shows and other marketing projects?
Ferris: Some trade shows and promotional events are held in the United States, but if youre really serious about exporting, I would encourage you to go to as many shows as possible, including those overseas.
Many ATOs coordinate a U.S. pavilion at important food and beverage trade shows, and beforehand, we give U.S. exhibitors a briefing on the market situation. We can even make you banners and promotion materials in the language of your potential customers.
FAS also provides funding through its Market Access Program to help U.S. trade groups attend these events. You can look information on the program up on our website: (ato.html) You can also call us at (202) 720-3623 for more information.
Travel isnt necessary in every case. Sometimes ATOs do promotions for U.S. agricultural products that dont require an exporters presence. For example, we may conduct in-store supermarket promotions with free samples, to get shoppers tasting U.S. flavor and to encourage purchases right on the spot.
Curtis: We recently held a trade mission in Milan of just nine U.S. companies, small-to mid-size, the kind that might find trade shows prohibitively expensive. Nearly all the companies that participated in this trip found importers or distributors while they were here.
I think the trade mission worked because we kept it shorta day and a half. Also, both the U.S. and Italian companies arrived ready to talk business.
AgExporter: Exporting can be risky both in terms of getting products through and in terms of losses. What can an ATO do to help?
Collie: You know, Albert Einstein said, "Wise men solve problems, but geniuses prevent them."
While I wont say were working at the Einstein level, our office does provide information on averting potential import problems, so companies dont get blind-sided. We can also tell you about situations that have hurt companies in the past. We cant anticipate all the problems our exporters might encounter, but we can inform you about many ways to sidestep trouble.
An ATOs Golden Rules for Exporters
From Willis Collie, Director of the Caribbean Basin Agricultural Trade Office
Ferris: Sometimes we can help when things go wrong. If an exporters shipment is denied entry into a foreign country, the local ATO may be able to assist, if the matter concerns import regulations such as duties or quotas.
We can also help if it involves technical standards such as product ingredients or spoilage or export certification requirements. We may also work with the office of agricultural affairs in the embassy to find a solution."
AgExporter: Can you give us examples of ATO efforts to help exporters in these situations?
Wilson: Sometimes clearance problems are just a cultural misunderstanding. This happened when an American restaurant entered the Saudi market three years ago. After a few months, the company faced serious difficulties importing root beer from the United States. Alcohol is strictly forbidden in the Kingdom and Saudi Customs did not like the word "beer" appearing on any product label. Unbeknownst to ATO/Riyadh, 3,000 cases of root beer consigned to the restaurant were held up in Dammam for 6 months. During this time, the restaurant had tried to clear the shipment, but to no avail. They called the U.S. Embassy, which referred the case to me. I immediately contacted the Director General of Quality Control of the Ministry of Commerce, who has full authority to clear all food items into the Kingdom. After listening to my case, the Director General ordered the root beer released. This helped all soft drink exporters, since the Saudi authorities agreed to allow the word "beer" to appearas long as it appears after the word "root."
Another time, I received a call from the president of a peanut butter company in New Orleans. His shipment was held up in a Jeddah Port because a Saudi Quality Control Laboratory detected anaerobic bacteria.
I immediately met with the Director General who agreed to have the peanut butter re-tested a third timewhich turned out to be a charm. Its a good thing, too. Rejection of any American peanut butter by customs would have reflected badly on the entire U.S. industry.
AgExporter: What do you wish U.S. exporters better understood about your country?
Lower: U.S. companies must understand that higher value products are playing a much larger role in world trade than even a decade ago!
At the same time, competition is increasing and the markets are changing. Brazilian food companies are a case in point. Theyre constantly improving their quality, and expanding their product lines. Brazilian consumers are more sophisticated than ever. Increasingly, people want a product thats made for them and not one that appears to have been left over from another market with a sticker label slapped on it. Marketing and presentation make a decided difference.
AgExporter: Whats the most important thing exporters should know about working with ATOs?
Bailey: There are two important facts that U.S. companies should know about ATO services. The first thing to know is how extensive and accessible our services are. And, equally important to know is thatall of these services and market insights are free to U.S. exporters! Thats a deal thats hard to beat!
For a directory of these and other ATOs visit the FAS website: www.fas.usda.gov or call the FAS Deputy Administrator for Foreign Affairs at (202) 720-6138.
The author is a public affairs specialist with the FAS Information Division, USDA, Washington, D.C. Tel.: (202) 720-7939; Fax: (202) 720-1727; e-mail: email@example.com