WASHINGTON — A group of 23 major sugar users and related associations have petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to immediately ease import restrictions to allow more sugar into the United States in the face of tight supplies and soaring prices.

"According to U.S.D.A.’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, the United States will end the next fiscal year (Sept. 30, 2010) with less than 13 days’ worth of sugar on hand, unless imports are increased," the group said in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack dated Aug. 5. "If this forecast is accurate, our nation will virtually run out of sugar."

The signees, including the American Bakers Association, the Independent Bakers Association, the Sweetener Users Association, ConAgra Foods, Inc., General Mills, Inc., Kraft Foods Inc., Pepperidge Farm, The Hershey Co., Blommer Chocolate, Mars, Inc., and others, said without an increase in U.S.D.A. imposed quotas, "consumers will pay higher prices, food manufacturing jobs will be at risk and trading patterns will be distorted."

The group urged the U.S.D.A. to "act now in the interest of all Americans," to immediately increase import quotas for the current and next marketing years, and blamed the shortage on the "restrictive U.S. policy on sugar imports."

Refined bulk sugar prices jumped 4c a lb, to 39c f.o.b. this week, following 28½-year highs set this week in world sugar futures prices in New York. World supplies are especially tight because of a shortfall in India, the world’s leading sugar consumer and second largest producer, harvest disruptions in Brazil, the world’s largest producer and exporter, and short supplies in Mexico.

Traders indicated domestic sugar supplies still were available for both this year and next year but at higher prices than users wanted to pay. They also indicated most users were well covered for the current marketing year, which ends Sept. 30, but that coverage for next year was less than 70% of potential.

The U.S.D.A. recently indicated it would take a cautious approach to any change in import quotas.