WASHINGTON – Batter-coated french fries are a fresh vegetable, according to the Agriculture Department (search), which has a federal judge's ruling to back it up.
But the department said Tuesday that the classification applies only to rules of commerce, not nutrition, and it doesn't consider an order of fries the same as an apple in school lunches.
The ruling last week by federal District Judge Richard Schell in Beaumont, Texas, allowed batter-coated french fries to be considered fresh vegetables under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (search). Most other frozen fries had been on the list since 1996.
Regulations under the law help to assure buyers of commodities such as french fries that they are getting what they ordered, said George Chartier, a spokesman for the department's Agricultural Marketing Service. Frozen fries are fresh simply because they don't meet the standard necessary for them to be listed as processed, and adding batter to the fries does not change the classification, he said.
The commodities act does not apply to nutrition, where batter-coated french fries are still considered processed food.
The department does not plan to repeat its experience in trying to classify ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches, Chartier said. The ketchup-as-vegetable proposal was put forward in the Reagan administration, and the department dropped the idea after it found itself not only opposed but laughed at.
The department's proposal to list batter-coated fries as fresh under the commodities act provisions was challenged by a Dallas-area food distributor, Fleming Companies (search). The company is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, and the law requires creditors who sold fresh fruits and vegetables to be paid in full, while other creditors might get partial payment, said Fleming Companies' lawyer, Tim Elliott of Chicago.
Fleming Companies plans to appeal, Elliott said. The law was intended to protect growers of fruits and vegetables, especially small farmers, and the ruling misconstrues the act's intent, he said.
"It's unfathomable to me that, when Congress passed this law in 1930 and used the term 'fresh vegetable,' they ever could have conceived that large food-processing companies could have convinced USDA that a frozen battered french fry fell into that definition," Elliott said.
Although Fleming Companies sold the fries to supermarkets, most are eaten in fast food restaurants, Elliott said. The coating makes the fry crunchy and adds flavor, he said.