PORTLAND – Maine lawmakers are urging the U.S. Department of Defense to explain a procurement policy that allows U.S. service members to buy foreign-made shoes.

The policy affects Boston-based New Balance, which operates the last large shoe plants in the United States, including three in Maine.

At issue is a 2009 decision by the Pentagon to exempt athletic shoes from the World War II-era Berry Amendment. That law requires the military to purchase U.S.-made apparel for soldiers.

Since 2009, the military has issued vouchers that soldiers can use to purchase whatever brand of shoes they choose.

New Balance President and CEO Robert DeMartini said in a statement that the company believes “the Department of Defense should take the necessary steps to preserve the decades-old intent of the Berry Amendment as it relates to athletic footwear.”

He added, “We believe all soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should be trained for combat readiness with athletic footwear made by U.S. workers. We look forward to an open and transparent process that allows American companies like New Balance and others to put American-made footwear on America’s finest.”

New Balance has shoe plants in Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway and employs 838 Mainers.

Global public relations manager Kristen Sullivan said the company has sold athletic shoes to the military for years. In 2009, New Balance started customizing its domestically made model 993 shoe for different branches of the military.

Lawmakers have been pressing the Pentagon to explain the procurement policy shift.

In a January 2010 letter, four senators, including Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, asked the Department of Defense to “conduct a review of this practice, including ways to improve the new voucher system to ensure that the current practice complies with both the spirit and the letter of the Berry Amendment.”

Also in 2010, lawmakers included language in a defense spending bill asking the Department of Defense to explain the change.

In March 2011, the agency released an initial report saying the shoe voucher program gives “new recruits the ability to buy commercially available running shoes of their choice, in consideration of the uniqueness of their individual physiology, running style and individual comfort and fit requirements.”

The report added that the Berry Amendment exempts domestic items that are not available in “satisfactory quality and sufficient quantity,” or those that cannot be procured “as and when needed at U.S. market prices.”

“A single model of athletic shoes which meets all of these requirements, at the selected price point, from a U.S. supplier has not been identified,” said the report.

The Department of Defense has told lawmakers that the agency will issue a final report by June 1.

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at:

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