(Web Editor’s note: This article is an extended version of a piece running in the April 28 print and digital editions of The Packer).

(April 25, 10:08 a.m.) WASHINGTON, D.C. — As exceptions go, it is a big one.

Proposed changes to the Women, Infants and Children program, which would bring fruits and vegetables into the program, has been acclaimed by most produce industry leaders. But the exclusion of “white potatoes” — defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as all potato varieties except orange yams and sweet potatoes — has potato marketers lobbying for a change.

Failing a farm bill fix or an agency changing the rule, the potato industry may have little choice but to challenge the science behind the rule, according to John Keeling, president of the National Potato Council.

“We don’t want to start a food fight.” he said.

In an April 24 e-mail response to questions from The Packer, USDA Undersecretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Nancy Montanez Johner said all potatoes except orange yams and sweet potatoes are excluded from the voucher program. She said the change to the WIC food packages were made based on scientific recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine.

The rationale for the institute’s scientific recommendation to exclude white potatoes — which, according to its definition, includes russets and reds — is due to WIC mothers’ already high rate of consumption.

Potatoes accounted for 6.1% of all retail produce department sales in 2007, according to the Produce Marketing Association’s Retail Fresh Produce Industry Sales report, behind only tomatoes (8.3%), apples (7.8%) , grapes (6.8%) and bananas (6.2%).

The USDA is accepting comments on the rule until Feb. 1, 2010.

“It is too early to say what changes, if any, would be made in the final rule based on the comments received,” Johner said.

To allow all tablestock potatoes would require a revision to program regulations, Johner said.

Keeling said the potato industry is working with Capitol Hill on ways to include potatoes as part of the WIC food package. A letter signed by a group of senators and delivered to the farm bill conference promoted a farm bill fix to the problem.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., led a group of lawmakers who asked the USDA to include fresh white-flesh potatoes represented in the nutrition program. Others that signed on in support were:

  • Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.;

  • Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.;

  • Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.;

  • Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho;

  • Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho;

  • Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine;

  • Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.;

  • Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine;

  • Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa.; and

  • Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.

The WIC food packages are now said to represent about 200 stock-keeping units, Keeling said, and when fruits and vegetables are included, the number would mushroom to 2,200 SKUs.

“You are talking about a significant inclusion of the entire fruit and vegetable category except potatoes, and that just isn’t justified,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to fix.”

Armed with nutrient comparisons with other fresh produce items, Keeling said every option will be considered in the quest to bring potatoes into the program.

“It is still an interim rule, and USDA could come around and do the right thing,” he said. “The problem with it is there is no scientific justification for excluding potatoes from the program.”

Specifically, Keeling said April 24 the potato industry would look for any legislative vehicle that will allow a fix for the omission of potatoes. However, he said not enough research has been done on legal options to be certain if that a lawsuit would be a credible option.

Still, industry leaders are convinced they have a good case. Looking at the Institute of Medicine report, Keeling pointed out that potatoes are an excellent source of magnesium, potassium and calcium. In fact, they are bigger sources of those nutrients than spinach, broccoli and carrots, respectively, Keeling said.

“United strongly supports fresh white potatoes being included in the WIC program, and we said that in comments to the USDA in the proposed rule,” said Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh. “It doesn’t make sense. We believe that fresh potatoes would be a very healthful choice of WIC community.”

When asked if United Fresh would support possible legal action to change the WIC rule, Stenzel said he doesn’t believe anyone is seriously considering a lawsuit at this time and such talk is premature.

“This is bad public policy that needs to get fixed,” Stenzel said. “We don't see any reason for re-opening the rule or any kind of delay.”

Stenzel said USDA or the Congress, needs to specify that fresh white potatoes should be included as a healthy nutritious choice for WIC moms.

Stenzel said failing a fix in the farm bill, the USDA would still be able to remedy the problem.

“We believe USDA can fix it on their own, but they need to have the will to do it,” he said.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said WIC participants need more access to fruits and vegetables as soon as possible.

“All produce should be included,” she said.

NO TURNING BACK?

Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition and Policy Consultants LLC, Bethesda, Md., said the USDA will be hard pressed to include all potatoes.

“There’s a possibility they might change it in the final rule, but I seriously doubt it. The potato folks were complaining during the proposed rule process,” Fox said. “If (USDA) didn’t change it then, what’s the justification for changing it now?”

Fox, who has previously written regulations for the USDA, said changes in regulations from the interim final rule to the final rule typically relate to minor tweaks or glitches in the regulations.

“That change would require probably reopening the rulemaking process. That’s not an insignificant change,” she said. “IOM was specific and thoughtful in their recommendation, so if the USDA is going to change they risk reopening the rulemaking process. I don’t think the USDA wants to do that.”

Given an opportunity to reopen the rulemaking, juice, dairy and other interests may want to push for more favorable treatment from the WIC food packages.

Fox said one of the Institute of Medecine’s reasons for excluding white potatoes is that the commodity is widely consumed already by much of the WIC population.

“The intent was to promote variety,” she said.

Even if a WIC consumer took home a fresh potato and consumed it as a baked potato and not in fried form, it is still a potato, and would limit the WIC participants’ ability to try other orange and leafy green vegetables.

Douglas Greenaway, executive director of the National WIC Association, said New York may be the first to implement the new food packages, perhaps even by this fall, but certainly before the deadline of October of 2009. He said he hopes rulemaking is not opened up again for the WIC voucher plan.

WIC FAST FACTS

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture published the interim final rule to revise WIC food packages on Dec. 6, 2007.


  • WIC participants will receive a monthly fruit/vegetable voucher in the following amounts:

    -Moms - $8/month

    -Children (1-5) years of age - $6/month

    -Fully breastfeeding mothers - $10/month


  • Many WIC moms will receive two fruit/vegetable vouchers a month for a total of $14 (one for themselves, one for their child).


  • WIC serves more than 8.5 million women, infants and children.


  • For retailers, more than $500 million in new produce sales are projected annually as a direct result of the new WIC fruit/vegetable vouchers.


  • It is expected that every state will implement WIC fruit/vegetable vouchers and other changes to the WIC food package by Oct. 1, 2009.


  • Fresh fruits and vegetables will be emphasized. However, the fruit/vegetable vouchers can be used to purchase any combination of fresh or processed fruits and vegetables, with the following specifications:

    -Any variety of fresh whole or cut fruit without added sugar

    -Any variety of fresh whole or cut vegetable, except white potatoes, without added sugars, fats or oils

    -White potatoes (fresh or processed) are excluded from authorization in WIC food packages. Sweet potatoes are allowed.

    -Any variety of canned or frozen fruit without added sugars, fats, oils or salt

    -Any variety of canned or frozen vegetables, except white potatoes, without added sugars, fats or oils, may be regular or lower or sodium

    -Any variety of dried fruits or dried vegetables without added sugars, fats, oils or salt


  • Based on actual purchase data from California, bananas, apples, tomatoes, carrots, oranges, lettuce, broccoli, onions, grapes, avocados and pears will be the most frequently purchased fresh fruits and vegetables.


  • Incremental banana sales are estimated to be $107 million annually, apples $71 million, tomatoes $53 million and carrots $43 million.