(June 28) The U.S. Department of Agriculture finds itself in a batter-coated kerfuffle of late, after the recent decision that batter-coated, frozen french fries qualify for coverage under the Perishable Agriculture Commodities Act.

Major newspapers across the land heaped ridicule on the rule, confusing the public about what constitutes a fresh vegetable for dietary purposes. And the fresh produce traders the statute was designed to protect must be wondering who’s on whose side.

Sure, frozen fries are as perishable as any other frozen item. And they’ve been covered under the statute since 1996, when frozen potatoes that had been blanched in hot oil — that category includes most frozen fries — were brought under the act.

But the inclusion of batter-coated spuds is the icing on the cake of good rulemaking gone bad.

When the statute was created in 1930, frozen french fries did not enjoy near the popularity they do today. Simply, the infrastructure to make them America’s most widely consumed “vegetable” did not exist.

Perhaps it was an error to have french fries ever fall under PACA.

Before 1994, when the USDA made the proposal to include fries, it held the position that PACA covered only fresh produce and did not include vegetables or fruits that had been manufactured into food of a different character. Under pressure from fry manufacturers that had lost big money when big customers went bankrupt, the USDA reversed course.

In its more recent proposal to include the batter-coated fries, the USDA stated that coated or battered fruits and vegetables should be covered under PACA because coating or battering does not alter the character of the end product.

“PACA does not define the term ‘fresh vegetables,’” U.S. District Judge Richard Schell wrote in his ruling that affirmed USDA’s proposal.

“Instead, PACA ambiguously states that ‘fresh fruits and vegetables of every kind and character’ are perishable agriculture commodities,” Schell continued.

One might find some shippers of fresh potatoes — especially those fighting a war against Atkins & Co. — who disagree that an oil-fried spud is the same as a baked potato.

In the meantime, PACA continues down a treacherous slope toward irrelevance.

Retailers fall under PACA but don’t have to pay licensing fees because they complained and got their way. The trust supposedly covers the restaurant trade, but only in the court districts that have so ruled. Restaurants also don’t pay licensing fees.

And now batter-coated fries? As one fast-food marketer advertised, we deserve a break today.

The more USDA dillutes the value of the PACA trust by including questionable commodities, the less chance the produce industry will have to claim its fair share of disbursements from unscrupulous, bankrupt traders.

And that’s not sugarcoating things.