May 2, 2024
Collins: Vilsack pledges to keep potatoes classified as vegetable

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack called her April 30 to say the agriculture department will officially support keeping potatoes classified as a vegetable, not a grain.

On March 28, Collins and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet led the writing of a bipartisan letter opposing reclassification of potatoes or recommendations that potatoes and grains are interchangeable as the 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) are written.

The letter was sent to Vilsack and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary (DHHS) Xavier Becerra.

Susan Collins

“The reclassification of potatoes would have sent a false message to the public that the USDA believes that potatoes are not healthy,” Collins said in a statement released Wednesday. “The fact is, when prepared properly, the potato is a wonderfully nutritious food that is affordable, easy to transport, has a long storage life and can be used in a wide array of recipes.

“I am pleased Secretary Vilsack called me personally to tell me that the USDA has no intention of reclassifying potatoes and recognizes that potatoes are, in fact, a vegetable. I urge the DHHS to follow the USDA’s lead and recognize the same reality.”

The USDA shares jurisdiction over the DGA process with DHHS. Collins is waiting for a written response from Becerra, according to the statement.

The National Potato Council heralded Collins’ announcement but said it would keep an eye on political maneuverings.

“This certainly is a positive development, and we couldn’t be more grateful for our congressional champions like Senators Collins and Bennet for advocating on behalf of America’s potato growers,” Bob Mattive, NPC president and Colorado potato grower, said in a news release. “We appreciate Secretary Vilsack’s clarification that potatoes will not be reclassified out of the vegetable category or, just as importantly, made interchangeable with grains.

“Over a year ago, we raised concerns after learning that the 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee began reviewing potato’s interchangeability with or reclassification as a grain. We take seriously any effort to treat potatoes differently than other vegetables — this is not the first time the potato industry has needed to push back against federal efforts to limit potato consumption. And while this is good news, NPC will continue to monitor the DGA writing process to ensure the federal government focuses on increasing Americans’ vegetable consumption, rather than picking winners and losers in the vegetable category.”

Earlier this month, USDA told Scripps News that the DGA Committee has not discussed changing the classification of potatoes, though that wasn’t enough to mollify some industry advocates.

“The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is an independent committee,” Kam Quarles, NPC CEO, told Spudman on April 9. “It will provide a report to the secretaries of both agriculture and HHS. But for anyone upstream of the committee to say they know how an independent agency is going to come down — that’s not how independent agencies work. I would love to have a crystal ball and know exactly what their report is going to say in nine months, but I don’t.”

NPC addressed the issue again in a column for the May/June issue of Spudman, with Mark Szymanksi, NPC communications director, outlining past efforts to limit the use of potatoes in school dietary programs and cheering a mid-April USDA final rule codifying the eligibility of fresh white potatoes in WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

“Normally, we would take a moment to celebrate a success two decades in the making. However, some of the same activist voices from the past are forcing us to defend against new attempts to impair the standing of potatoes in our diets, via reclassifying them out of the vegetable category or making them interchangeable with grains in the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) report,” Szymanski wrote. “This new attempt is a tactical shift but not a strategic one by anti-potato activists. Their long-standing goals remain the same: limiting the access of potatoes in federal nutrition programs and changing the way that nutritionists think about America’s favorite vegetable.”

Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, is a longtime supporter of the state’s potato industry. She introduced an amendment prohibiting the banning of white potatoes from the national school breakfast program in 2011 and works to secure language in each year’s agriculture appropriations bill to prevents the USDA from limiting potatoes in school breakfast and lunch programs, according to her office.

Collins’ office and potato advocates tout the nutritional facts about the vegetable, including:

  • Potatoes have more potassium than bananas.
  • Potatoes are cholesterol-free, fat-free, and sodium-free, and can be served in healthy ways.
  • A medium baked potato contains 15% of the daily recommended value of dietary fiber, 27% of the daily recommended value for vitamin B6, and 28% of the daily recommended value of Vitamin C.

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