Senators stand up for potatoes as a vegetable amid reports of USDA change

March 28, 2024

Fourteen senators are calling on the departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) to keep the potato classified as a vegetable, amid reports that a joint advisory committee is considering “the interchangeability of starchy vegetables and grains.”

In a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the senators on Tuesday made the case that the potato is a vegetable, not a grain, pointing to its nutritional benefits, its physical characteristics and its horticultural scientific classification.

“The scientific justification behind the assertion that potatoes are not vegetables is not strong, and there are documented nutritional benefits of potatoes. Therefore, we strongly oppose any reclassification of potatoes to the grain category under the DGAs,” the senators wrote.

The letter comes amid reports that the 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is “considering changes to food groups,” including “the interchangeability of starchy vegetables and grains,” according to testimony from the National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles.

The advisory committee is tasked with providing independent, science-based recommendations to the USDA and HHS secretaries to help inform their development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The DGA is issued every five years and influences federal nutritional and food policy.

A spokesperson for USDA said in a statement that the advisory committee “is not considering a change to the classification of potatoes,” noting it “is not within the Committee’s purview to make such a change.”

Still, the reports have sparked concerns for many in the potato industry, which could take an economic hit if such a reclassification takes place.

In making the case for keeping a potato a vegetable, the senators noted the practical consequences that such a reclassification would have on food programs and on the supply chains, saying a change “would immediately confuse consumers, retailers, restaurant operators, growers, and the entire supply chain.”

They also noted the impact on federal nutrition programs and school food programs.

This is not the first time that classification of vegetables and nutrition standards for school meals have come under scrutiny. In 2011, when the USDA proposed a limit of two servings of starchy vegetables a week, the potato industry fought back, with the backing of senators from potato-growing states. The Senate approved a measure blocking the USDA from imposing caps.

Similarly, that year, the USDA proposal said tomato paste on pizza did not count toward issuing limits to weekly vegetable consumption standards, but the Senate fought back and approved a measure to block that proposal.

The letter on Tuesday was sent by a bipartisan group, including both senators from Colorado, Idaho, Maine, North Dakota and Oregon, along with Sens. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

The Hill has reached out to HHS for a response.