Is 'rice' the next battleground in the fight over food labeling terms?
- Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently signed a "Truth in Labeling" bill that prohibits products from being called "rice" unless they come from the grain. That means "riced" vegetables, like cauliflower rice, will no longer permitted to be labeled with that term.
- According to the bill, the purpose of this new law is to "protect consumers from being misled or confused by false or misleading labeling of agricultural products that are edible by humans." It also applies to other agricultural products like livestock and poultry.
- The penalty for violating this labeling requirement — which will go into effect this summer, 90 days after the 2019 session ends — will be a $1,000 fine for each violation.
In an interesting addition to the discourse, Arkansas has chosen to take up the standards of labeling fight that many industries are having with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on plant-based milk and meats — but for rice. How could a minced vegetable upset the market for one of the world's leading food staples? Since consumers have shunned carbs and focused on healthier alternatives, veggie rice options have risen to prominence.
One of the most popular substitutes has been cauliflower rice. With about two grams of net carbohydrates in a cup of cauliflower, this alternative has a fraction of the 51 grams of carbs in white rice and the 42 grams in the equivalent quantity of brown rice. Seeing an opportunity to cut carbs without sacrificing flavor, consumers have flocked to this cruciferous vegetable. Broccoli and rutabaga are two other vegetables that have gained a significant following as rice alternatives.
Naturally, the rice industry isn’t happy about having its market share encroached upon by vegetables. In 2017, Betsy Ward, president of USA Rice, said in a statement quoted in media reports at the time that "only rice is rice, and calling 'riced vegetables' (as cauliflower rice is sometimes named) 'rice,' is misleading and confusing to consumers." At the time, she asked outgoing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to look into enforcing standards of identity for the grain.
But unlike dairy groups, which have entered into similar battles with plant-based milk alternatives, rice finds itself in a unique position. While rice is waging war with cauliflower on one front, on the other side, the industry is playing turncoat as rice milk has benefited from lax labeling laws for the dairy industry. The Arkansas law doesn't appear to address dairy terminology.
Much like rice milk and almond milk producers argue that consumers are not confused by the use of the term "milk," vegetable producers could argue that consumers aren't confused about cauliflower rice. But that does not mean that the penalties for violating these new labeling laws are up for interpretation. Arkansas is the sixth state to pass a law mandating food products be labeled as what's actually in the package. But it is unlikely that manufacturers will take heed.
At the beginning of the year, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit against Blue Diamond Growers claiming that the label "milk" was deceiving consumers into believing they were consuming a substance derived from dairy. Likewise, in 2013 judges dismissed a similar case against WhiteWave Foods. In 2015, a federal judge dismissed a class action lawsuit against Trader Joe's, in which plaintiffs hoped to stop companies from using the word "milk" for soy milk.
That being said, for vegetable rice there could be an easy solution to circumvent lawsuits and continue the association as a substitute for the grain. In the English language, the verb "to rice" means making something look like the small grain. With a simple transposition of words, "cauliflower rice" would become "riced cauliflower," a solution that would likely be much less of a hassle than arguing in court.
- Arkansas State Legislature AN ACT TO REQUIRE TRUTH IN LABELING OF AGRICULTURAL 10 PRODUCTS THAT ARE EDIBLE BY HUMANS; AND FOR OTHER 11 PURPOSES.
- Arkansas Democrat Gazette Truth in labeling inked by governor