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USDA to stop referring to small raisins as ‘midgets’

A bin full of unprocessed raisins at Raisin Valley Farms Raisin coop in Kerman, CA on June 19, 2013. (Photo by Chris Hardy/ For The Washington Post)

When the Little People of America heard from a concerned member of the group’s community that some small raisins were referred to as “midgets,” it petitioned the federal government to make it stop.

So the Agriculture Department agreed to remove the word from its Standards for Grades of Processed Raisins.

Yes, the government maintains federal raisin designations, and since around World War II the smallest ones, used mostly for baking, were marketed as “midget” raisins.

But the term is offensive to little people, who view it as a slur. They won’t even say it. They call it “the M-word.”

The Little People of America, an advocacy group for people 4 feet 10 inches tall and under, petitioned the USDA in May 2013 to remove the official reference, and the agency passed the request on to the Raisin Administrative Committee, which runs the nation’s raisin reserve. The response was, essentially, “no problem.”

“It was really just ‘Okay sure, whatever,’” Hector Omapas, the committee’s director of compliance, told the Loop, his shrug almost audible over the phone. “It was really much to do about nothing.”

The committee, which runs the nation’s raisin reserve, has already stopped using the term in its marketing orders, Omapas said.

This Aug. 21, the USDA got around to soliciting public comment on a proposed rule that would officially remove the five references to “midget” raisins from the federal standards list.

While the folks in the dehydrated-grape business had no problem changing how they referred to the smallest raisins, the only two comments on the USDA’s proposed rule as of Tuesday are from people decrying political correctness.

“This is akin to killing fleas with a cannon. Certainly, there is a better use for workers at the USDA than to be checking under every rock for an offended person,” a commenter wrote.

Leah Smith, spokeswoman for Little People of America, said she’s used to that kind of pushback.

“We recognize that every use of the term is not meant to be hurtful, but it creates a difficult and hostile environment,” she said. “It does sound like a small thing, but when people see it in reference to raisins, they think it’s also okay to use it in reference to people.”

Little people are trying to eliminate the word from the English lexicon. When they find it in use, they ask for it to be changed. For instance, in February 2013, Gedney Foods, the maker of Cains pickles, agreed to change the name of its “Kosher Dill Midgets” after receiving a complaint.

There is a USDA grade standard for “midget pickles,” too. And some companies make “midget pretzels.” Both terms are on the advocacy group’s radar. So are schools that use “midgets” as their mascots. The Washington Post pulled a Pearls Before Swine comic strip in April 2014 because it used the word.

“We’re trying to eliminate the word whenever used,” Smith said. “Words have an impact on how we think and what we do.”