Plum Outta Luck

For those of you who thought the Food and Drug Administration's main focus was new pharmaceuticals, rest assured it still plays a critical role in safeguarding the national food supply. Consider the case of the California prunes.

California's prune industry is unhappy, in turns out, with its image in the United States. In Europe, "younger people see any dried fruit as very healthy" and even prunes are trendy, says industry spokesman Dan Haley. But here, "people see prunes as a laxative for oldsters." In an effort to turn the situation around, the industry wants to give its product a new name -- dried plums. According to prune packagers and sellers -- and the dictionary -- "a dried plum" is what the fruit is. And people in focus groups clearly preferred that term.

So in March the industry approached the FDA's Office of Food Labeling to see if changing the name would be a problem. Apparently it might be. The initial word was that the agency would disallow the name change as false and misleading.

In May, California's two senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, wrote FDA Commissioner Jane E. Henney, asking for the rationale behind any decision to disallow prunes from becoming dried plums.

There are several problems, FDA Associate Commissioner Melinda K. Plaisier wrote back, nearly six months later. For example, "dried prunes have been known for decades by the common or usual name `prunes,' " she said. "We are concerned that calling prunes by another name could be misleading to the consumer." And, further, "the term `dried plums' is already used to describe a dried version" of another variety of plums -- French plums -- "that is different from the variety of plums used to make the food commonly known as prunes."

Plaisier said the FDA had been asking the industry to provide written explanations for such issues as:

."The effect [on FDA regulations] of renaming prunes."

."International aspects of changing the name."

."Results of consumer research including United States and foreign studies."

."Other labeling options and why they would be ineffective."

."Why . . . the prune is marketed more successfully in Europe than in the United States."

In addition, the agency wanted a "a plan of action for educating consumers about the name change and information about plums and prunes that is available on Web sites."

The industry had recently provided some information, Plaisier said, and "we are in the process of reviewing it."

Haley says FDA's inability to move on this is "keeping us in purgatory. We could just do it and say it's a dried plum and say `take action against us for call-ing a dried plum a dried plum.' " A compromise might be a transition label that would put "prunes" in parenthesis, he said.

Maybe a free box of dried plums would help?

Keeping Up With . . .

. . . TV Marti. That's the 9-year-old, anti-Castro television station on which the U.S. government beams programs to Cuba -- programs no one ever watches because the regime has always jammed the signal.

Just when you thought things couldn't be goofier, the weekly New Times of Miami reports that "the station lost its transmission balloon on Oct. 1 and it will be months before broadcasts resume." Based on the program's $9.4 million budget, "U.S. taxpayers have been spending some $25,000 per day for [weeks] of blank screens," the New Times figures.

Not to worry, a U.S. Information Agency official assures everyone: "Production continues -- they don't stop producing programs." And these are no doubt fine quality programs, produced with the latest technology in the station's ultramodern new studios.

In the past, congressional critics who have tried to kill the program have argued that no one saw it because of the jamming -- but they have been roundly defeated by supporters saying that would mean knuckling under to Fidel Castro. Now Castro doesn't even have a signal to jam.

But with the departure last year of former Colorado representative David E. Skaggs, the leading opponent of TV Marti, no one bothered to try to kill the program in the most recent budget battles.

Besides, who knows, maybe Fidel dies, the commies are kicked out, the jamming stops and then people in Havana actually will be able to watch TV Marti -- except they'll be tuning in to "Baywatch" reruns instead.

International Relations

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin was at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government recently lamenting the "notion among the press that those in the government are either incompetent or corrupt." He argued otherwise.

Rubin reportedly told the audience he would never knowingly lie to a reporter. His wife, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, was no doubt relieved.

Tips and comments for Al Kamen's column are welcomed at: In the Loop, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or by e-mail at Loop@washpost.com. Please include home and work phone numbers.