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COMPANIES COME TO THE TABLE WITH MIXED EXPECTATIONS

Despite some concerns about China dumping low-priced apple juice concentrate on the U.S. market and its impact on Western New York fresh apple juice processors, the overall food-processing business in New York State shows promise for 1999.

Food processors make up a significant part of the Western New York economy and most appear to be in healthy condition.

Milk-based processors include Buffalo's Sorrento Cheese and Upstate Farms' Bison products plant, Cuba's Great Lakes Cheese, Pembroke's Kutter's Cheese Co., Steuben Foods in Elma, Friendship Dairy in Friendship and the O-At-Ka Milk Products co-op in Batavia. Also prominent are Perry's Ice Cream of Akron and the reorganized Dunkirk Ice Cream Co., now known as Fieldbrook Farms.

"For the industry, I believe this will be a better year than last," said Tom Perry, owner of Perry's Ice Cream and president of the International Ice Cream Association.

"Last year was a nightmare, because of the pricing of butter fat that went from 80 cents a pound to a high at one point of $2.81 a pound. As a result, the industry raised prices, but it's difficult to get that back from the market and everyone had difficulty making profits including Breyer's, Hood and the entire industry.

"We expect a better situation this year, with sales up 20 percent at Perry's. Milk production has increased substantially, and farmers are adjusting the pricing and quality of their milk product, and the cost of butter fat is coming down," Perry said.

Apple juice processors are not as hopeful.

Jim Dickerson, treasurer of the Associated New York State Food Processors Association, said he sees the 1999 season and beyond as a depressed one for fresh-pressed apples, with lower prices offered for growers.

"This is not a local problem," said Dickerson, who is also vice president and general manager of Mayer Brothers, which bottles cider, apple juice and other beverages at its plants in West Seneca and Barker.

He noted that in recent years, China began exporting apple juice concentrate to the United States at prices well below the cost of local production.

"They were challenged by fruit grower groups in this country for dumping their concentrate into our market," he said. "All they've done is bring the price of their concentrate up to about $4 to $5 a gallon, still far short of the $6 to $8 it costs local producers of fresh pressed juice to process their product."

China, he said, is just the tip of the iceberg. "They are now ready to process fruit that is ready to harvest, and they want that U.S. dollar. They're preparing to export many millions of gallons of juice concentrate and they'll keep the price just above the price minimum to prevent us from accusing them of 'dumping' their product on the U.S. market."

The one good piece of news for the consumers of apple juice is that chain stores haven't altered their prices either way. They're generally charging 99 cents for a half-gallon of apple juice.

On the other hand, some wine grape growers did well, as both Canandaigua Wine Co., the state's largest, and smaller growers have continued to expand their markets.

Jim Finkle, acting president of the New York Association of Wine Producers and a vice president of Canandaigua Wines in Fairport, said, "The quality of grapes last year was excellent."

Canandaigua Wines produces many regional labels, including Widmer's, Almaden and Paul Masson, and brings in about 80 percent of is grapes from New York State, Pennsylvania and Canada.

Finkle said he believed that the processing of grapes and the production of wines statewide will continue to be a moderately profitable industry in 1999.

On the other side of the grape business, the National Grape Cooperative (Welch Foods) had case sales hit 52.4 million for 1998 and net sales come in at just under $600 million, both records. The amount the company returns to its growers reached $72.4 million, also an all-time high.

The news from New York's vegetable processing sector also continues to be encouraging.

Western New York has a host of other food processing concerns, including:

In Buffalo, General Mills packs Wheaties and other cereals. In Angola, the Bison Canning Co. cans and distributes Goya brand soups, dry beans and vegetables.

In Niagara Falls, the venerable National Biscuit Co. still packages Shredded Wheat. Pfeiffer's Foods of Wilson bottles salad dressing.

In Wyoming County the Lew-Mark Baking Co. of Perry, also recently enlarged, supplies all of New York and New Jersey with Archway cookies.

In Orleans County, Bowman Apple Products of Lyndonville makes applesauce, while its neighbor, Nakano Foods, bottles vinegar. Ontario Foods of Albion turns out soup mixes, sauces and cocoa mixes.

In Genesee County, Agrilink's Curtice-Burns subsidiaries in Oakfield and Bergen process sweet corn, peas, beans, carrots and rutabagas, while another plant at Barker processes many of the same vegetables. In Chautauqua County, the Red Wing Co. has applied for increased waste water limits at its Dunkirk plant, where some of its private-label products are bottled or canned.

The Cliffstar Co. of Dunkirk bottles grape and other juice, while in Westfield and North East, Pa., Welch Foods bottles concentrated grape and other fruit juices and products. Nearby, Mogen David bottles wine for the kosher trade, while Growers Cooperative also processes grape juice.

Besides these larger processors, Dietrich Foods of Batavia, Chiavetta's of Brant and the Valley View Cheese plant in Conewango have developed their own specialty markets for sauces and cheese.

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