A 'perfect storm' of negative developments is threatening to wreck the North American marshmallow industry.
The first threat is from an old adversary: global warming. Farmers in Washington and Idaho - where some 90% of domestic marshmallow crop production is located - report sustained temperatures reaching "campfire levels." And when that happens, according to the respected industry periodical "The Agronomist," in its July issue, "marshmallow blooms puff up and spontaneous combustion occurs...an isolated flame-up can spread more quickly than a forest fire."
What can be done about it? According to Herb Black, Chief of the Idaho State Bureau of Conservation, not much. "We can't defoliate, as we'd knock off other species. We can't irrigate, as water's too scarce. We can't put fire-fighters' lives at risk. The only thing we can think of is to have planeloads of Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls, Brownies, Kinettes and so on to fly in for impromptu marshmallow roasts. It would be a once in a lifetime experience for them." But that is where the next problem arises. A spate of marshmallow roast lawsuits has yielded soaring insurance premiums, and is forcing scouting and camping organizations to impose strict fireside safety standards. All participants in marshmallow roasts must now wear flame retardant gloves and aprons, as well as goggles and a helmet; a fire extinguisher must be deployed at all times; and only prescribed asbestos coasted roasting sticks may be used. "It somehow takes the fun out of sitting around singing She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain and eating S'mores," lamented an unnamed Scouts official.
Can North American processors get their marshmallows somewhere else? Not likely, according to industry experts. There are pockets of marshmallow production in England and China. England doesn't have the same warming problems (perpetual rain provides the buffer), but the entire national crop was recently destroyed when it was discovered some plants had been infected with Fungal Tooth Decay virus, which can be toxic in humans. "Nothing could be more important for our national security than to have the world maintain its confidence in the English Marshmallow. We will take whatever drastic measures are necessary" said a grim faced Prime Minister Gordon Brown to a packed House of Commons.
As for China, it denies it has any problem - indeed it denies it has a marshmallow production industry - and says that the recent execution of the head of the State Bureau of Soft Sweet Squishy Foods was for unrelated crimes having to do with bad grooming.
Sources say China is indeed a potential source for North American processors, and its labour intensive efforts to protect the crop from combustion appear to be bearing fruit.
But even if Chinese production were somehow available for import, another problem comes to the forefront. Because marshmallows bear such a similarity in appearance to a key plastic explosive ingredient often used by terrorists, and because they are so light and easily transported; the Department of Homeland Security has classified the marshmallow, along with toothpaste and shaving cream, as a banned substance. In short, to get marshmallows into the United States, you'll have to smuggle them in.
Already, border officials are enraging visitors from Canada by confiscating all Rice Krispy Squares that pass under their scrutiny. "It's hard seeing people so upset" said one border official stationed at a Maine entry point; "but on the plus side, we have better snacks at coffee break."
And if that weren't enough, several influential Senators and Congressional Representatives have talked of slapping China with a punitive Marshmallow Import Duty "The Marshmallow is the meat and potatoes of some 10,000 Idaho families" said Idaho Senator Irene Knibble. "We are not going to let this industry puff up and burn."
So what of the future for the American marshmallow industry? It doesn't look good, according to Wanda Snacker, agriculture columnist for the Wall Street Journal. "I see a big move into pretzel stocks. And the short sellers have already got their claws into Heavenly Hash. But I'm not recommending a move into beef jerky futures at this time."
What can the consumer do at this point? "Don't panic", said Black. "Just moderate your marshmallow intake until we can ride this one out."
Easy for him to say.
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