Did the Reagan-era USDA really classify ketchup as a vegetable?

July 16, 2004

Dear Cecil:

The phrase "ketchup is a vegetable" is coming up a lot in discussions of President Reagan's recent demise. What's the story behind that line? Who classifies ketchup, or any other food, as a vegetable, meat, legume, etc? Why do they feel a need to make these official classifications? Who in the Reagan administration actually made that decision? I've also heard that the ketchup-as-vegetable thing was really Carter's doing and that salsa was classified as a vegetable by Clinton. When I search for the origin of the phrase, all I get are a bunch of political sites repeating it without explanation.

No wonder. The story is so convoluted that it defied simple explanation at the time. Even today, the episode can be plausibly presented (depending on the political leanings of the presenter) as either a simple bureaucratic screwup or an unsuccessful effort by the right to pursue its agenda at the expense of the nation's kids.

Ketchup and other food products are classified for different purposes by different agencies under a wide variety of federal programs. The classification in this case was by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its subsidized school lunch program. Then as now, local school districts could receive reimbursement for each lunch served provided it met minimum standards. In mid-1981, only a few months after Reagan took office, Congress cut $1 billion from child-nutrition funding and gave the USDA 90 days--the blink of an eye, for the federal bureaucracy--to come up with new standards that would enable school districts to economize, in theory without compromising nutrition.

The USDA convened a panel of nutritionists and food service directors to ponder what to do. One option on the table--no one later would admit to putting it there--was to "accept catsup as a fruit/vegetable when used as an ingredient." Some panel members seized on this as an opportunity to discuss whether to count ketchup even if used as a condiment. From what I can tell, the motive wasn't so much penuriousness as trying to face facts about what kids would actually eat. USDA standards at the time required that a reimbursable lunch consist of five items: meat, milk, bread, and two servings of fruit or vegetables. Many kids refused to eat the veggies and the stuff wound up as "plate waste." Would-be realists on the panel reasoned that if they could count ketchup as a vegetable they could meet federal standards without having to throw away so many lima beans, thereby saving money while having no impact on the kids. Looked at in a certain light, it made sense. Ketchup wasn't the only newly permissible substitute: pickle relish and conceivably other condiments could also count as vegetables (precise interpretation was left to state officials); protein sources like tofu or cottage cheese could replace meat; and corn chips, pretzels, and other snacks could replace bread. Minimum portion sizes were also reduced, purportedly another effort to reduce waste.

Mid-level Reaganauts at the USDA saw all this as a matter of giving the states more latitude; wiser heads might have realized that the rest of the world would see it as taking food away from children. Unfortunately for Reagan, the 90-day deadline allowed no time for higher review. When the proposed new rules were released for comment in September 1981, food activists went ballistic. Democratic politicians staged photo ops where they feasted on skimpy-looking meals that conformed to the new standards. The mortified administration withdrew the proposal and the USDA official in charge of the program was transferred, a move widely interpreted as a firing. One person who didn't come out of the mess with ketchup on his face was Jimmy Carter, who'd had nothing to do with it.

So, a garden-variety goof, right? It looked worse than that, thanks to agriculture secretary John Block, an antiregulatory zealot who attempted to defend the new rules after the fact, claiming they'd been misunderstood. Nonsense; they were just stupid. All intentions aside, counting condiments as vegetables and reducing portion sizes were an invitation to abuse. A few months later the USDA adopted for preschools and elementary schools a more sensible policy already used in high schools, called "offer vs. serve"--schools still had to offer the five meal components, but students could refuse any two. In the 90s, the Clinton administration got little grief when it proposed counting salsa as a vegetable, as properly made salsa has more nutritional heft than sugar-laden ketchup.

A reprise of the ketchup fiasco loomed recently when a federal judge approved new USDA regs classifying batter-coated french fries as a fresh vegetable. Another attempt by the GOP to feed junk food to the playground set? Actually, it had more to do with creditor priority during bankruptcy settlements, believe it or not--but please, don't ask me to explain more than one bit of bureaucratic arcana at a time.

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