Posted on February 17, 2001


Plum Loco

FDA holds veto power over reality


Daniel Clark


This just in from the Ask A Stupid Question department: When is a prune not a plum? Why, when the U.S. government says it's not. When else?

As it happens, the plum growers of America have indeed been given the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration to begin marketing prunes as "dried plums." The fact that prunes are dried plums is considered to have played a significant role in the FDA's decision. So what's the big deal, you might say. At least the bureaucrats got one right for a change. But the point is that it's come to this in the first place.

His daftness, King George III

It's difficult to imagine anything more un-American than this. The idea that farmers should go crawling to the government for permission to put the word "plums" on a box of plums sounds like the final deranged musing of King George III, just before he went to hell and invented the BTU tax.

If the government is needed to sign off on the fact that plums are plums, then that means it also has the power to deny that fact, which, in a way, it has done. Paired with the FDA's pro-plum ruling was a separate judgment, which concluded that prune juice cannot now be called "dried plum juice." Its explanation for this decision is that "dried juice" would be a contradiction in terms. The real contradiction, though, is that by our government's own figuring, the juice of a dried plum cannot be dried plum juice.

Apparently, the bright boys in Washington have decided that the brains of the consumers are too fragile to withstand the incongruity of something dried being turned into juice. Perhaps their concern is that we'll believe it to be some volatile anti-matter, and stampede one another on our way out the supermarket door to safety. For some reason, though, they have been unwilling to shield us from other, far more malignant groceries.

If somebody buys a bottle of dried plum juice, whether he expects it to be wet or dry, he has resigned himself to the fact that it will taste like prunes. Turkey bologna, on the other hand, tastes nothing like bologna at all. It's not even bologna-colored. Then there are vegetarian hamburgers, those bright gray oat pucks which are no more like hamburgers than ham is. Come to think of it, the word "hamburger" is itself deceptive, and should be sent immediately to the FDA for an intensive review. While they're at it, they can look into the great peanut fraud, since peanuts are neither peas nor nuts. Peanuts are actually beans, and tragically, they are eaten everyday by many unwitting consumers who don't even like beans.

Redundant foods can be a problem as well. If a consumer buys a jar of cheese food, expecting it to contain both cheese and food, that means that when he discovers that the cheese and the food are one and the same, he has been cheated out of fifty percent.

...but can he bowl for The Grapes on league night?

We can rest assured that our benevolent government will get around to addressing all these problems for us in due course. Its top priority, however, must be to undo the damage that it has just done with this latest ruling. The very fact that dried plums can be juiced at all flies in the face of the FDA's rejection of the concept of "dried plum juice."

Happily, this problem can be rectified by establishing federal maximum moisture standards to which a fruit must adhere in order to earn the label "dried." Fruits which exceed these moisture standards, like raisins for instance, could technically be considered "withered grapes" or "shriveled grapes," but not "dried grapes." The standard must be such that no fruit can be classified as "dried" which is capable of yielding juice.

And just how, you might ask, would the average plum grower know how many drams per cubic millimeter -- or whatever measurement would be used -- of moisture was in their dried plums? Naturally, they wouldn't. Such a determination would require constant government supervision, accompanied by the threat of stiff penalties for failure to comply. This would encourage the growers to err on the side of caution, by producing prunes which have the approximate texture of a loofah.

Of course, the costs of regulatory compliance would inevitably drive up prices, and anybody who now happens to like prunes would notice a distinct decline in the product's quality, but what are a few trifling inconveniences when balanced against the need to protect the unsuspecting public from confusing fruit?

All the plum growers are trying to do is repackage one of their products in order to increase sales. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that there are lots of people who would enjoy the taste of prunes and prune juice, but haven't tried them because prunes are known primarily for their laxative effect. Calling a prune a dried plum diminishes the inhibiting connotations, yet it is still an honest representation.

Who cares if the occasional dullard doesn't realize that dried plums are prunes? Let's assume that such a person hates prune juice, but for some reason imagines that dried plum juice would be delicious. Then he takes the juice home and drinks it, only to find that it is identical to the prune juice he so loathed. Whose responsibility is that, anyway?

The FDA's answer to that question is dishearteningly predictably. Even on the new prune boxes, which are allowed to carry the words "dried plums," our protectors have required that the words "pitted prunes" appear in smaller print elsewhere on the box. This despite the fact that removing the word "prunes" from the packaging was the entire point.

Anybody who harbors any lingering doubts that our federal government wields too much power should consider this the last straw. The FDA has taken it upon itself to restrict entrepreneurial freedom by denying an industry permission to implement a perfectly innocent marketing campaign -- all because it believes the American people are unworthy of responsibility for the contents of their own mouths.

For about the last fifteen years, there has been a debate within our government over whether we need to be defended against nuclear missiles. There seems to be no question, by comparison, that we must be protected from subtle prunes. It kind of makes you wonder who the perceived enemy is.


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