Lugar says U.S. sugar policy anything but sweet

August 31, 2011

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(Michael Puente/WBEZ)
Employees with Albanese Confectionery Inc., in Hobart, Indiana sort through lime green Gummi Bears.
(Michael Puente/WBEZ)
U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), left, speaks with Scott Albanese, founder of Albanese Confectionery Inc.
U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) (Left) takes a tour of Albanese candy company in Hobart, Ind. on Tuesday.

Indiana voters might be accustomed to seeing their senior U.S. senator in a regular business suit and tie, but in Hobart, Indiana on Tuesday morning, Richard Lugar looked every bit the part of a candy maker complete with white lab coat, safety glasses and hair net. At the Albanese Candy Company, Lugar got a first-hand look as to how gummy bears are made, along with an assortment of chocolate goodies.

But Lugar was still on a political mission: to hear cries for help from small, family-owned confectioners like Albanese in their battle to lower the high price of American sugar.

“As I tell everybody if you had a spoon full of sugar this morning, you paid twice as much for it as you should. But we’re also talking about jobs,” Lugar told WBEZ. “A good number of companies who are in the confectionery business have not left the United States, but a lot of their new plants and their jobs have gone elsewhere because of the cost of sugar.”

As part of his support for the Free Sugar Act of 2011, Lugar proposes the elimination of the federally mandated program that controls the American sugar supply. Those controls lead to what Lugar calls artificially-inflated costs. Lugar cited figures that suggest domestic businesses pay about 60 cents per pound for sugar, compared to the 35 cents per pound that foreign candy makers pay on the world market.

Lugar, who grows corn and soybeans on his farm outside Indianapolis, said the federal government’s current policy protects Southern growers of sugar. He says that needs to end.

“It comes back to the protection of a very few growers who have had a hammerlock on, and they are not unique. I’m opposed to subsidies in general,” Lugar said.

Scott Albanese, founder and owner of Albanese Confectionary Group, Inc., started his company with 30 employees. It now employees more than 200 and is looking to double the size of its physical plant as well as its workforce. But his future as a candy maker in the U.S. could be in jeopardy if sugar prices remains constant or go higher.

“What they should do is let the market determine what the price is. Right now, they are not doing that. The government is almost, in essence, almost dictating the price of sugar,” Albanese said.

Albanese said the government’s policy is forcing larger manufactures of candy moving jobs out of the U.S. to Canada or Mexico.

“They can simply buy sugar at half the price. It’s a crime. I’m penalized as an American to buy my American sugar, but if I’m Mexican I can buy American sugar at half the price,” Albanese said. “There’s something innately stupid about that.”

Lugar’s office estimates about 112,000 U.S. jobs connected to the sugar industry have been lost since 1999.

But the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, one of the nation’s leading producers of sugar, said current U.S. sugar policy “ … ensures that foreign predatory trade practices — such as export subsidies, marketing monopolies and cartels, high internal supports, and high import barriers — do not drive efficient American sugar farmers out of business and threaten the reliability and stability of sugar supplies to American consumers.”

The cooperative, according to a statement on its website, said current U.S. policy ensures that jobs in rural America are not sent overseas, and that American consumers are “not held captive by unreliable foreign suppliers of subsidized sugar.”

Lugar’s trip to the candy factory comes during his reelection campaign, one that’s had him traveling around the state in recent weeks. Although Lugar’s respected both here and abroad for his foreign policy expertise, Tea Party Republicans are less than impressed with his bipartisan approach and his support of some of President Obama’s decisions. Fellow Republican Richard Mourdock, who now serves as Indiana’s state treasurer, is battling Lugar for the party nomination next May.

Some politicos around Indiana believe Mourdock is a longshot to win, but Lugar’s leaving nothing to chance, hence the trip to Democrat-friendly Lake County - the home of Albanese Candy. Lugar’s never taken the top place during Lake County’s general elections, but he still feels he needs to campaign there.

“Northwest Indiana is always very important. I try to be competitive in each of the elections and sometimes almost succeeded in winning Lake County,” Lugar said. “Obviously, I’m concerned about the Republican primary election. I started my campaign a year ago, which indicates quite a bit of concern. We have been fundraising and touring the state. My phone bank has been making 2,000 calls a night. That’s a pretty steady course eight months away from the primary.”

In wrapping up his visit, Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concerns over who will take over Libya now that Moammar Gadhafi is gone but has yet to be found.

“I think at some point the whereabouts of Moammar Gadhafi will be apparent, but I’m very troubled by the fact that there is not really unity within the so-called rebels. We are in a very difficult predicament there and Gadhafi coming or going will not make that much difference,” Lugar said.

He added that he opposed President Obama’s move to get the U.S. involved in the Libyan conflict in the first place, believing the country has its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan.