Let chips fall where they may

Published 11:47 pm Tuesday, June 2, 2009

There is a line in one of Shakespeare’s plays that asks, “what is in a name,” and answers with the statement that, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Well in Britain these days, the question is not about roses, but chips.

Specifically, do you tax a potato chip called by any other name? The answer, according to a recent ruling by the country’s high court, is yes a chip is a chip even if you call it something else.

In a display of how humans make a big deal about small things, there is a battle raging over whether or not a Pringle is a potato chip or another type of food product. It seems in the land across the big pond, potato chips — called “crisps” over there — are a taxable item. I’m not sure why products made from potatoes or potato flour are taxable when other foods aren’t, but hey that’s the law in merry old England.

So it’s easy to see why Proctor & Gamble U.K. wants to prove that a Pringle is not a potato chip/crisp. Because if it is, the company owes $160 million in taxes, and that folks is lots of potatoes any way you slice them.

As I read about this case in the New York Times, I laughed at some of the arguments. For example, Proctor & Gamble said Pringles are only 40 percent potato flour and also contain corn, rice and wheat. Therefore, they are not chips but “savory snacks” — whatever the heck a savory snack is in Britain.

On the other side, the Duties Tribunal said a Pringle is “made from potato flour in the sense that one cannot say that it is not made from potato flour, and the proportion of potato flour is significant being over 40 percent.”

And in yet another ruling made after the first one was overturned, it said, “while in many respects they are different from potato crisps and so they are near the borderline, they are sufficiently similar to satisfy that test.”

Not to be outdone P & G argued that to be taxable a product must contain enough potato to have the quality of “potatoness.”

“Potatoness,” now there is a new word. And what would be the definition of potatoness? How would one decide if something has enough potato essence to have potatoness?

It all, the Times editorial said, comes down to this question. “At some point, a potato-chip-like item is so different from a potato chip that it can no longer be called one — but when?”

What I’m wondering is in the midst of a global economic crisis, how much money went into this Pringles case? Is this really what we have come to as humans — arguing in court about potato chips?

After millions of years of evolution, developing from cave dwellers to creatures who fly to the moon, with all of our advances in technology, all of our brain power, and with all the problems in the world that need addressing, we spend countless hours and dollars debating what is and is not a potato chip. If it weren’t kind of sad, it would be really funny.

Of course even though the company lost and is probably going to pay $160 million in taxes, I still like Pringles, that yummy savory snack. In fact, I’ve got some in my kitchen cabinet and I think I’ll go right now and judge their potatoness for myself.

Then perhaps I can answer that other Shakespearian-like quandary — a chip or not a chip, ah, that is the question.