Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Toss the Salad

From the Sun-Sentinel:

Federal government classifies french fries as fresh veggies

WASHINGTON · Anyone trying to add more fruits and vegetables to their diet may have just gotten an unlikely assist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Based on a little-noticed change to obscure federal rules, the USDA defines frozen french fries as “fresh vegetables.”

As bizarre as it may sound, a federal judge in Texas last week endorsed the USDA’s rules in a court case, saying the term “fresh vegetables” was ambiguous.

The USDA quietly changed the regulations last year at the behest of the french fry industry, which has spent the past five decades pushing for a revision to the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA). The law was passed by Congress in 1930 to protect fruit and vegetable farmers in the event that their customers went out of business without paying for their produce.

The Frozen Potato Products Institute appealed to the USDA in 2000 to change its definition of fresh produce under PACA to include batter-coated, frozen french fries, arguing that rolling potato slices in a starch coating, frying them and freezing them is the equivalent of waxing a cucumber or sweetening a strawberry.

The USDA agreed and, on June 2, 2003, the agency amended its PACA rules to include what is described in court documents as the “Batter-Coating Rule.”

Tim Elliott, a Chicago attorney who recently challenged the revision in a Texas federal courtroom on behalf of a bankrupt food distributor, said defining french fries as fresh vegetables defies common sense.

“I find it pretty outrageous, really,” said Elliott, who argues that the Batter-Coating Rule is so vague that chocolate-covered cherries, packed in a candy box, would qualify as fresh fruit. However, in a ruling released last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Schell sided with the USDA.

The french fry rule calls to mind the USDA’s attempt in 1981 to classify ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables, an idea that was dropped amid public protests.

Just add a dollop of ketchup and you’ve got your full daily serving of fresh vegetables.