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The Trump administration’s latest deregulation target: Frozen cherry pie

The Food and Drug Administration is proposing getting rid of a federal standard for frozen cherry pie. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

This post has been updated.

The Trump administration has taken steps to roll back some pretty high-profile rules. You might have heard of its moves to eliminate the ban on drilling for oil on public land, or maybe anti-fracking rules, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

But here’s another deregulatory effort that has flown more under the radar: the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday proposed scrapping its rules governing the makeup of … frozen cherry pies.

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Small potatoes? Maybe. But Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA chief, applauded it as a fat slice of liberty for the populace. “The American people are free (to) add extra fruit, sugar, and make the crust especially thick,” he tweeted.

Here’s how we got to the Freedom Pie phase: For decades, government regulators have set precise and detailed standards for all kinds of food products, spelling out, for example, the proportion of fruit that goes into a jam, mandating that gumbo must contain okra (unless it’s labeled “Creole-style”), and dictating that fajitas must contain no less than 15 percent meat.

Its apparently doomed current rules for frozen cherry pie are similarly specific. Under the FDA’s dictate, there can be no artificial sweeteners in such a product. Actual fruit must make up at least a quarter of the pie’s weight (the agency requires a painstaking method for determining compliance with this that involves a “U.S. No. 8 sieve” held at an angle between 15 and 30 degrees). And no more than 15 percent of the cherries may be blemished.

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All of which, according to the folks who make cherry pies, is outdated, unnecessary and perhaps even anti-American.

“It’s that prescriptive mentality that makes it so difficult to adapt and modernize and innovate and improve,” says Robb MacKie, president and CEO of the American Bakers Association, who notes that the rules were put in place decades ago and that their origins aren’t even clear.

Though it hadn’t specifically petitioned to remove the cherry-pie regulations since 2005, the group has long argued against them, noting that the agency doesn’t regulate other kinds of pie (there’s no similar passage governing apple pies, for example), nor does it prescribe rules for non-frozen cherry pies.

The bakers’ group has also contended that the FDA shouldn’t set quality standards for pie, or really, anything else. Consumers should be able to buy more cheaply made pies if that’s what they like, the group argues, and besides, it says, really bad products probably won’t last long in the market.

“Standardization of quality is not properly a function of government in a democratic society,” the organization wrote to the FDA in 1997.

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The FDA this week seemed to finally agree: “We tentatively conclude that the standards of identity and quality for frozen cherry pie are no longer necessary to promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers and revoking these standards will provide greater flexibility in the product’s manufacture, consistent with comparable, nonstandardized foods available in the marketplace,” the agency wrote.

If you’re wondering why the FDA would bother with a rule change on something so minor in the midst of a pandemic that is sapping much of the agency’s attention — without even having been directly asked to in 15 years — here’s a possible explanation. According to MacKie, the rules governing frozen cherry pies are often used internally at the FDA as an example of the kind of outdated, slow-moving mind-set the agency is struggling to overcome. The cherry pie rules were seen as a “poster child” for inefficiency, he said.

Removing them, then, might be as much about symbolism as it is about the box of cherry pie you find in your supermarket freezer aisle.

The proposed repeal of the regulations is part of the agency’s overall goal of streamlining and modernizing food standards, an FDA spokeswoman says in an emailed statement, noting that it also last week proposed similarly deregulating French dressing.

“Since the regulations were in place in the 1970s, it’s important to take a fresh look at existing standards of identity in light of marketing trends and the latest nutritional science,” the email reads. “The agency’s goal is to maintain the basic nature and nutritional integrity of products while allowing industry flexibility for innovation to produce more healthful foods.”

And some consumer advocates — even those who typically oppose most flavors of deregulation — aren’t putting up a fight. Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America, isn’t worked up about the prospect of cherry-pie anarchy. “I’m sure there are people out there who would say, ‘cherry pie is going to go to hell in a handbasket now — it will be filled with fake cherry’ or something,” he says. “Well, those pies are probably on the market already, they’re just labeled as something like ‘cherry dessert’ or ‘cherry flavored pie.’ The real pie connoisseurs are going to figure out how to get a pie that meets their standards.”

There was, predictably, some snark about the FDA’s move on Twitter. “Really glad I will be able to buy a Frozen cherry pie* in the future that only contains trace amounts of cherry,” one poster bemoaned in response to Gottlieb’s tweet. “‘Let them eat cherry pie with whatever the corporation wants to put in the pie’ is a very 2020 thing,” wrote another.

But Gremillion has bigger fish to fry, to mix food metaphors. Clearer nutrition labeling, he says, would help consumers far more than regulating the cherry content of frozen pie. “If there can be only some many regulations,” he says, “it’s okay if these go away.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly ascribed regulations to the FDA that were issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This version has been corrected.

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