WASHINGTON - Anyone trying to add more fruits and vegetables to their diet might 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 now defines frozen french fries as "fresh vegetables."
As bizarre as it might sound, a federal judge in Texas last week endorsed the USDA's decision 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.
The revision was made at a time when the reputation of french fries has been under siege. Loaded with fat and carbohydrates, french fries have been targeted by low-carb diet plans as a snack to avoid and blamed for contributing to America's expanding waistline.
The Frozen Potato Products Institute appealed to the USDA in 2000 to change its definition of fresh produce 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 rules to include what is described in court documents as the "Batter-Coating Rule."
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.
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.
"This is something that only lawyers could do," Elliott said, pointing to a stack of legal documents debating the french fry change. "There must be 100 pages there about something you could summarize in one paragraph: Batter-coated french fries are not fresh vegetables."
However, in a ruling released last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Schell sided with the USDA on its revision of the perishable commodities act, known as PACA.
"PACA does not define the term `fresh vegetables,'" Schell wrote. "Instead, PACA ambiguously states that `fresh fruits and vegetables of every kind and character' are perishable agriculture commodities."
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