Uncle Sam's Barbecue

USDA identity crisis.


Last fall the food critic Mr. Cutlets excoriated the Bush administration for bringing its "bloodlust of deregulation" to "the world of smoked meats." The offending act: the U.S. Department of Agriculture's September announcement that it would no longer include a weight-reduction requirement in its definition of "beef or pork with barbecue sauce." Since the 1950s, the USDA has required that all products so labeled must use meat cooked to 70 percent of its original weight, with the lost fat and moisture eventually combined with sauce and sold as a canned or frozen product.

The change in the USDA's "standard of identity" pleased the American Meat Institute and other trade groups. But at least one producer, the Georgia-based Castleberry/Snow's Brands Inc., joined Mr. Cutlets in opposition, telling The Washington Post the revised rule would create "a lot of confusion."

Casual observers might have expressed another form of confusion–that a federal agency charged with ensuring the safety of meat, poultry, egg, and dairy products spends its time judging what is or isn't barbecue. In some parts of the country, that might be construed as violating the separation of church and state.