Federal authorities have insisted on standards for the condiment for decades. That’s about to change
The US government’s tyrannical reign over a classic condiment is finally ending.
For more than 70 years, the Food and Drug Administration has insisted on certain standards for French dressing, even as the condiment has been derided by food snobs and fallen out of favor with the American palate.
The dressing, essentially a vinaigrette with ketchup and other flavors, has been called too sweet, too coarse, and not French enough, as the food writer Charles Perry pointed out in a 2000 essay defending the stuff. In a 2017 survey of favorite American condiments, French dressing hardly got a mention; ranch was the clear winner, the New York Times noted.
But things are changing for the beleaguered condiment, thanks to a longstanding effort by concerned citizens at the Association for Dressings and Sauces (ADS), an industry group that is demanding an end to the FDA’s salad-dressing surveillance.
The FDA maintains “standards of identity” for foods to ensure they meet consumers’ expectations and manufacturers aren’t misleading shoppers – they are “kind of like a recipe”, said Diana Winters, deputy director of the Resnick Center for Food Law at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Perhaps authorities got wind of devious behavior involving French dressing, because in 1950, the FDA issued rules saying the dressing must contain at least 35% vegetable oil, along with certain “acidifying ingredients” such as vinegar and citric acid. Salt, sugar, tomato paste, and “harmless seasoning or flavoring” can also be added, according to the Federal Register, the government’s journal.
Over the decades, various changes were made to the standards. But “because it’s still on the books, manufacturers who are making anything they call French dressing had to follow that exact prescription”, Winters said.
Until, that is, the Association for Dressings and Sauces swooped in. It argued that there were many similar toppings – ranch and Italian, for instance – that weren’t subject to such rules. French dressing “no longer serves as a benchmark for other dressings”, the FDA cited the ADS petition as saying, and the standards served to “restrict innovation”.
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“The association said other dressings don’t have this and the public doesn’t need this,” Winters said. “The reason to issue a standard of identity is to protect the public, basically, and say look, if you’re buying this, you know exactly what you’re getting.” But the industry group argued “the public knows what French dressing is and if a manufacturer wants to use a different or innovative ingredient or do something like bring down the fat content, they should be able to,” Winters said.
It appears not to have been a priority for officials: it took 22 years for the FDA to recommend a change. In late 2020, the FDA signaled it agreed with ADS. Its final rule was published on Thursday and will take effect in 30 days.
So what does this mean for enthusiasts – those who, like Perry, understand the “American taste for a big, mouth-filling sauce full of sweet, sour, spicy and aromatic flavors on a rich, long-cooked tomato base”? Could Americans’ newfound freedom to engage in French dressing innovation bring about a renaissance?
Probably not. If people are “going to buy a French dressing, it will still be French dressing as they expect it to be,” Winters said. “I don’t expect anything to change in the salad dressing aisle.”