Never mind the obesity crisis: US lawmakers prodded by the frozen food industry have moved to protect schools’ ability to count pizza sauce as a vegetable in lunches for students.

In an annual spending bill covering the US Department of Agriculture, which has oversight over subsidized school meals, a joint House-Senate panel voted to prevent the agency from restricting pizza, fries, and starchy vegetables.

A Republican summary of the legislation, which was unveiled Monday and may be approved this week, cheered the defeat of “overly burdensome and costly regulations” and hailed “greater flexibility for local school districts.”

And the American Frozen Food Institute industry lobby hailed the measure, which it said “recognizes the significant amounts of potassium, fiber and vitamins A and C provided by tomato paste and ensures that students may continue to enjoy healthy meals such as pizza and pasta.”

But “this isn’t about nutrition, this is about protecting pizza makers,” according to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Pepperoni pizza is not a vegetable.”

Existing rules define a full serving of vegetables as eight tablespoons, or a half-cup, except for a “loophole” that sets the amount of tomato paste required at two tablespoons, roughly what goes on a slice, she told AFP by telephone.

The USDA had proposed early this year to require eight tablespoons of tomato paste in one vegetable serving, and limit school lunches to two servings per week of French fries or other starchy vegetables.

“The Congress basically stepped in to protect industry’s ability to continue to sell two of the most unhealthy foods in the school lunch program: pizza and French fries,” said Wootan. -AFP RELAXNEWS