Food definitions are no laughing matter+ READ ARTICLE
Jason Segel knows better than to joke about sandwiches. On the Tuesday night episode of the Late Show, the Sex Tape actor told David Letterman that a casual remark about the superiority of sandwiches to burritos caused such a firestorm on Twitter that it caused him to quit the social media service.
“Sandwiches are more diverse than burritos,” was the actor’s pronouncement. “I do know about burritos,” he added. “If they get too diverse, they’re a wrap.” Sandwiches, meanwhile, can encompass the wide variety seen within his top five list: from the BLT to the Reuben to the tuna melt to the grilled cheese to the PB&J.
But, though Segel has clearly given serious thought to the topic, he’s not the only one.
Last week, NPR covered one of the deep complexities of the sandwich vs. burrito debate: the fact that burritos may actually be sandwiches, by some definitions. According to the USDA Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book, a sandwich (of the closed variety) consists of “two slices of bread or the top and bottom sections of a slice bun that enclose meat or poultry”; the meat has to make up 35% of the total sandwich. A burrito, meanwhile, is a “Mexican style sandwich-like product consisting of a flour tortilla, various fillings, and at least 15 percent meat or 10 percent cooked poultry meat”; whether or not the ends of the rolled tortilla are “tucked” doesn’t make a difference. A wrap is a ready-to-eat product that “is wrapped in a dough based component” and contains a minimum 2% meat or poultry.
The reason the USDA cares is that these definitions help determine how products are inspected, labeled and taxed. For example, if a company tried to pass something off as a “ham croquette” that had less than 35% ham in it — an actual example from the book — they couldn’t get away with it. Different foods are inspected at different points in being assembled, and some fall into different tax categories.
Which is where sandwiches and burritos come in. As NPR notes, the state of New York taxes burritos under the heading of sandwiches, asserting that burritos aren’t merely a sandwich-like product. So, in New York at least, Segel would be legally correct: sandwiches are more “diverse” than burritos because burritos are a subset of sandwiches; furthermore, even outside that state, a burrito that gets too diverse — i.e. one in which the variety of ingredients is either no longer “Mexican style” or is of such quantity that the amount of meat sinks below 15% — does in fact become a wrap.
But, though the government seems to generally concur with the comedian, that doesn’t mean they’re on the same sandwich wavelength across the board. After all, the USDA definition of a sandwich — that it must include meat or poultry — means that grilled cheese and PB&J aren’t sandwiches at all. Even a BLT is unlikely to meat the threshold, since it would have to be 35% bacon to fit the bill.
The USDA’s position on peanut butter and jelly, as set out by the labeling policy, is clearly ludicrous — nearly as ludicrous as the way that David Letterman says “taco.” So, though Jason Segel isn’t the only one thinking about sandwiches, maybe he’s the one who’s thought about them the hardest. And for that, he deserves a sandwich.