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Updated: May 6, 2024

The 'eyes' have it: With dollars on the table, federal spud spat ends in a truce

Potatoes Photo / Renee Cordes Much to the relief of Maine potato growers, the USDA has bowed to pressure to keep the potato’s classification as a vegetable in national dietary guidelines.

A political mash-up over whether the potato should be deemed a vegetable or grain has ended in a truce, with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack promising to leave the veggie's designation as just that.

Vilsack's decision, announced by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, follows a bipartisan effort she led with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., objecting to the potato's proposed reclassification as a grain in the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“Since the inception of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it has classified potatoes correctly as a vegetable,” the group wrote in a March 26 letter to Vilsack.

“If potatoes were to be reclassified, consumers would miss out on vital nutrients. In addition, any change to potatoes’ current classification under the DGAs would immediately confuse consumers, retailers, restaurant operators, growers and the entire supply chain.”

The letter noted that because federal nutrition programs rely on the guidelines to ensure that beneficiaries get well-balanced, nutritious food, any change could come at a cost to schools.

In Maine, potato production contributes $540 million in annual sales and 6,100 jobs to the economy, a report by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry shows. Maine's output of potatoes is among the 10 largest of any state.

Close to two-thirds of Maine potatoes are used for processed foods like French fries and potato chips.

“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 May 1 news release. "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," she continued. She also urged the Department of Health and Human Services "to follow the USDA’s lead and recognize the same reality.”

U.S. Sen Angus King, I-Maine, had also signed the letter to Vilsack.

“Whether they’re fried, baked, scalloped or mashed, there are few foods that offer the delicious nutrition and versatility of Maine potatoes,” he said in a statement emailed to Mainebiz. “These spuds are packed full of rich vitamins and are a popular vegetable choice to have on the table.

"I am grateful to hear the U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to not reclassify the potato as a grain in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans review process which would have possibly given a false impression to Americans about the dietary value of potatoes, potentially harming potato farmers across Maine.”

Accolade from Aroostook 

The Maine Potato Board, based in Presque Isle, welcomed the USDA's resolution of the hot-potato issue in a Facebook post praising Collins "for being a champion for the state's potato industry."

In a short history of the mighty spud on its website, the organization notes that potatoes arrived in the American colonies in 1621, when the governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, sent two large cedar chests containing potatoes and other vegetables to Gov. Francis Wyatt of Virginia at Jamestown.

The first permanent potato patches in North America were planted in 1719, most likely by Scotch-Irish immigrants near what was then known as Londonderry, N.H. From there, the crop spread across the country.

The 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recognize potatoes as part of the starchy vegetables category and recommend Americans age 2 and older consume five cup-equivalents per week. The guidelines are revised every five years, and the revision process for 2025-30 is currently underway.

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