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Is a burrito a sandwich? The answer may sound simple to you, but defining a sandwich gets at the heart of a tension that has existed for ages - the tension between regulation and changing tastes and innovation. NPR's Elise Hu gives us this to chew on.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Sliced bread, our go-to example of early innovation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: The greatest thing since sliced bread.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Greatest thing since sliced bread.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: We are going to be the best thing since sliced bread.

HU: When you slap some meat inside two slices of bread, you've got a sandwich, at least according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It enforces the safety and labeling of meat and poultry.

MARK WHEELER: We're talking about a traditional closed-face sandwich.

HU: Mark Wheeler works in food safety at the USDA.

WHEELER: A sandwich is a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun, or a biscuit.

HU: For this definition, Wheeler consulted the agency's 200-page policy book, officially called "The Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book."

WHEELER: It's a reference. I don't know if I would call it the Bible, but it's a good source.

HU: But the USDA isn't the only place that must define a sandwich. It matters to places across the country for inspection and tax purposes. Just ask the government-memo-loving Noah Veltman.

NOAH VELTMAN: I have a weird hobby which is reading obscure government memos. I spent a lot of time in the nooks and crannies of government websites.

HU: A public radio computer developer by day, Veltman's weird hobby led him to the ins and outs of sandwich regulation.

VELTMAN: My new home, the state of New York, has a special tax category for sandwiches. And because they have that, it means they then have to go and define what they think a sandwich is. So they published this memo that explains that a sandwich includes club sandwiches and BLTs, but they also include hot dogs, and they include burritos, and they include gyros. And then you have to sort of say, are burritos really a sandwich?

HU: New York says yes. The USDA says no.

WHEELER: It doesn't fit the concept and the definition that I gave you of a closed-face sandwich.

HU: Wheeler says it makes a difference come inspection time.

WHEELER: We inspect burritos that have meat or poultry filling. We do not inspect closed-face sandwiches, regardless of the amount of meat or poultry in them.

HU: This debate gets so heated that in 2006 a contract dispute over whether Qdoba Mexican Grill's burritos qualify as sandwiches went to trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: This went far beyond lunch. This went all the way into the court system.

HU: The public radio show Weekend America covered it at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: The judge heard extensive testimony, expert witnesses, much deliberation took place. And in the end, Judge Jeffrey Locke ruled burritos are not sandwiches.

HU: That settled it in Massachusetts. But for every solid definition in every jurisdiction, you can find an edge case, as Noah Veltman points out.

VELTMAN: In the case of a hotdog or a burrito that you - your intuition tells you this is not a sandwich. But what is the line, right?

HU: An ice cream sandwich isn't really sandwich according to the feds, but we call it that. A taco is not a sandwich in New York, but a burrito somehow is. And remember the KFC double down?

(SOUNDBITE OF KFC ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: Two pieces of cheese, two pieces of bacon...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5: ...and two pieces of chicken. So long, bun.

HU: What happens when meat is sandwiched between two pieces of poultry?

VELTMAN: This is the hardest dividing line. I don't think you can limit it to just actual bread. I think you at least have to allow things like pitas and tortillas into the equation. But I'm not sure if you could say that if you took two sirloin steaks and you put something in between that you're then eating a sandwich.

HU: Sliced bread brought us sandwiches, but they keep changing. Ethnic cuisine infuses our cooking creations. Food trends flash in and out, and keeping up with all the innovation is kind of a losing game for regulators - the USDA's Mark Wheeler.

WHEELER: We're falling behind, yeah. You can't do anything about it. You just got to sit back and accept that and just put descriptive names on things.

HU: Whether it's sandwiches or smartphones, government tries to define and label products to protect the public. But innovation moves faster than standards can change. Veltman sees it in all the memos.

VELTMAN: People that write these memos are in the business of trying to classify the unclassifiable. Human behavior is kind of infinitely varied. You can never come up with a scheme for it that actually fits everything.

HU: So the answer to whether a burrito is a sandwich depends on where you're eating it. But that doesn't mean there aren't people trying to settle this once and for all.

VELTMAN: There's a San Francisco blogger, and he goes by the pseudonym of Burrito Justice, and he's little bit of a burrito thought leader.

HU: He came up with the torta defense.

VELTMAN: If you have a torta existing in the same food universe, then the non-sandwichness of a burrito is really the only thing separating the two. That it - if a burrito were a sandwich, it would be a torta. And it is not a torta, therefore it can't be a sandwich.

HU: For a taste of the speed of innovation and the confusion it can cause, look no further than sliced bread. Elise Hu, NPR News.

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