Raisers of Real Rice Fight Pretenders

States like Louisiana oppose labeling of a cauliflower variety; defenders hold ground


Rice farmer Paul Johnson surveys fields near Thornwell, La. He says use of the term ‘rice' for nonrice products is hurting his livelihood and deceiving shoppers.

Is cauliflower rice really rice? Many lawmakers in rice growing states say no.
 In Louisiana, home of spicy red beans and rice, a bill blocking companies from putting a “rice” label on products if they aren't made from actual grains of rice is moving quickly through the Legislature.
 It is the latest salvo from traditional agriculture groups and their supporters, who say makers of plant-based alternatives such as cauliflower rice— made from bits of cauliflower— almond milk and nonmeat hamburgers are causing confusion with their marketing. But advocates on the other side say such moves won't stop a broad public shift to what they call healthier offerings.
 The Louisiana bill, sponsored by a Democrat, passed unanimously in the state Senate last week and is now in the House. If it passes there, it would head to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. He hasn't yet taken a position on the legislation, a spokeswoman said.
 In March, a similar bill passed in Arkansas, the nation's largest rice producer, and other states are considering such legislation. Rice is also a major crop in Texas, Mississippi, Missouri and California.
 Paul Johnson, a 45-year-old rice farmer in Welsh, La., who just finished planting his 23rd rice crop on about 1,700 acres, said use of the term “rice” for nonrice products hurts his livelihood and deceives shoppers.
 “When you are dealing with bottom lines that are already as skinny as they are, and now you face this, it's something that you have to get ahead of,” Mr. Johnson said.
 Louisiana state Sen. Francis Thompson, chairman of the agriculture committee, said he decided to push a bill to tackle rice labeling, as well as dairy and meat labeling, after meeting with farmer groups. He said he isn't against cauliflower rice—in fact, he likes the taste—but said he wanted to make sure people weren't confused.
 Jamie Harris, co-founder of Pittsburgh-based Fullgreen Inc., which markets Cauli Rice in the U.S., said the packaging makes it clear it isn't rice. The company chose the term because “we knew customers would intuitively understand it,” he said, adding that the Louisiana legislation is “counter to the interests of the consumer.”
 Some companies have changed labeling after complaints, switching to the descriptor “riced cauliflower,” which rice growers consider more accurate.
 The nation's rice producers have faced shifting consumer habits, increased global competition and tariff and trade-deal challenges in recent years. About half of the U.S. rice crop is exported, with Mexico being the largest market.
 The price of rice has been dropping in recent years because of burgeoning worldwide production, and there is increased competition from exporters such as Brazil, said Michael Deliberto, an assistant professor at the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center.
 This March, U.S. rice growers told the Agriculture Department they would plant about 2.9 million acres in the 2019-20 season, down about 3% from the year prior. In 2017, they produced 17.8 billion pounds of rough rice, 20% less than the 2016 harvest and much less than the 2010 harvest of 24.3 billion, according to the USDA.
 The Louisiana bill calls for state agricultural officials to enforce the labeling rules and impose fines if necessary, but Mr. Thompson said he hoped state officials will instead work with companies to ensure compliance over time.
 These new players are relatively small, but sales are growing quickly, said Michael Klein, a spokesman for the USA Rice Federation. The federation doesn't have data indicating that these new products have had an impact on rice sales.
 Bob Cordova, president of the VegBoss LLC, a vegetable growing, -shipping and -marketing company based in Santa Maria, Calif., said he has seen cauliflower's popularity in the U.S. rise in the past three to five years. People who want cauliflower rice buy it no matter how it is labeled or where it is located in a grocery store, he said.

Against the Grain

American rice producers are facing shifting consumer habits, increased competition and trade challenges.

Value of rice produced in the U.S.


Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

 

BY CAMERON MCWHIRTER

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