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Where's the voice of reason?

Dave Farber's IP list pointed to what I thought would be an amusing read, especially given recent reminders of the Reagan Administration's efforts to label ketchup as a vegetable in school cafeterias. It was "USDA: Frozen Fries Are 'Fresh' Veggies" [re-paragraphed - Ed]

Based on a little-noticed change to obscure federal rules, the USDA now defines frozen French fries as "fresh vegetables".... The USDA quietly changed the regulations last year at the behest of the French fry industry, which has spent decades pushing for a revision to the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act. Known as 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... 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."

"This is something that only lawyers could do," [Tim] Elliott [an attorney challenging the revision] 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."

Meir Stampfer, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said it "boggles the mind" that the USDA would label French fries a fresh vegetable since most commercial fries are prepared in oil laden with heart-clogging trans-fat.

The USDA explained,... "It is still considered 'fresh' because it is not preserved. It retains its perishable quality."

Okay, there's a couple of things here that I want to ignore. One is the question of why the Feds should have regulations protecting certain producers from their customers going out of business without paying for the product they've purchased. Another is the question of what having "heart-clogging trans-fat" has to do with whether an item meets the definition or not (I take it as an argument that French fries are not healthy, to which I can only say, "Doh!" and ask what that has to do with it). And finally, I want to ignore the fact that 100 pages of debate about this change cannot be compared to the one paragraph summary, "French fries are not fresh vegetables." (I will also ignore the fact that it's more of a sentence than a paragraph.)

Reading between the lines — but only slightly — and recognizing that this is only a news account and may not be entirely accurate, there's a common sense explanation for what's going on here that the article doesn't bother to mention. PACA seems to have been intended to cover cases of non-payment by out-of-business buyers to food producers when the items produced are perishable, i.e. when recovery of the produce would be woefully inadquate compensation for the lack of payment. The judge's allusion to the ambiguity of the term "fresh vegetables" seems like a hint that this is a term narrlowly defined in the Act and specifically drawn up to identify those food items Congress wanted to protect in this way and to exclude those it didn't. The argument seems to be about whether French fries fall under the term as defined in the Act. It's not really about whether French fries are actually fresh vegetables in real life. It's about whether or not Congress intended to protect them from this kind of non-payment.

Here's the definition from PACA that is apparently under question:

(4) The term "perishable agricultural commodity" —

(A) Means any of the following, whether or not frozen or packed in ice: Fresh fruits and fresh vegetables of every kind and character; and

(B) Includes cherries in brine as defined by the Secretary in accordance with trade usages.

And here are some definitions from the regulations written to implement this law:

(t) Produce means any perishable agricultural commodity, as defined in paragraph (4) of the first section of the Act.

(u) Fresh fruits and fresh vegetables include all produce in fresh form generally considered as perishable fruits and vegetables, whether or not packed in ice or held in common or cold storage, but does not include those perishable fruits and vegetables which have been manufactured into articles of food of a different kind or character. The effects of the following operations shall not be considered as changing a commodity into a food of a different kind or character: Water, steam, or oil blanching, chopping, color adding, curing, cutting, dicing, drying for the removal of surface moisture; fumigating, gassing, heating for insect control, ripening and coloring; removal of seeds, pits, stems, calyx, husk, pods, rind, skin, peel, et cetera; polishing, precooling, refrigerating, shredding, slicing, trimming, washing with or without chemicals; waxing, adding of sugar or other sweetening agents; adding ascorbic acid or other agents used to retard oxidation; mixing of several kinds of sliced, chopped, or diced fruits or vegetables for packaging in any type of containers; or comparable methods of preparation.

(v) Frozen fruits and vegetables include all produce defined in paragraph (u) of this section when such produce is in frozen form.

I maintain that the discussion is not as ridiculous as it would first seem. Note the source to which the IP link points: a Common Dreams News Center web page. Their unabashed tagline reads, "Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community." One would definitely expect a liberal bias. (But note, too, that the story is a republication of a Los Angeles Times story, not that that precludes any bias, but they certainly don't wave their particular point-of-view as a banner like Common Dreams do.)

So back to the title of this post. Where are we to find the voice of reason in news stories these days? It's certainly not among the conservative sources. But it's generally not among the liberal sources either. I consider myself a liberal, but that's mainly because I abhor so much of what comes out of conservative camps. There's a lot to deride from the liberal camp as well. This article is a tiny, tiny example of the kind of non-sensical reporting I see so often. The stories I notice like this are usually the ones that concern some topic with which I have some familiarity. The lack of common sense and reason I see in these stories makes me wonder how much common sense and reason there can be in stories on topics with which I have little or no familiarity.

Where's the voice of reason to be found? How long can a society tolerate the strident voices of nonsense and mere passion?

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