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Rice, dairy industries call out FDA to police labeling issues

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Food industries are imploring FDA in meetings and letters to crack down on what they see as mislabeled food products in the marketplace.

Rice producers are seeing a growing number of “spurious” claims on imports, such as rice labeled as offering a lower glycemic index for people with diabetes.

“We are seeing a variety of statements on health benefits, organic certifications, and provenance that we think deserve a closer look,” said Betsy Ward, president & CEO of USA Rice.

If these health claims are true, that’s great and, if so, everybody should be able to do it, Mike Klein, spokesman for USA Rice, told IEG Policy. But if not, FDA should go after these products.

In a recent meeting with FDA officials, Klein said the industry took on a “more uphill battle” with regulators on another labeling issue.

Of concern are products labeled as cauliflower rice that contain no rice and have a much different nutritional profile, with one being a grain and the other a vegetable, he noted.

Klein said he was watching the Stanley Cup hockey tournament when he first saw a commercial for Green Giant’s Riced Cauliflower, with one of the advertisements suggesting rice should move over for the new product. Producers of cauliflower rice and broccoli rice are asking to stock the products right next to rice products, which may confuse shoppers, he said.

The lobby group for these producers point out the rice industry doesn’t own the term rice, and that there is no standard of identity for rice.

But there is a Codex standard of identity, and USA Rice is urging FDA to adopt that international standard by reference and has already raised marketing issues with the Federal Trade Commission.

“We’ve said rice is a plant, not a shape,” Klein said.

It’s unclear whether the agency will tackle the labeling squabble, and in fact FDA officials have indicated the issue is not a priority for the agency.

The rice industry has also had a “frank discussion” with a maker not to label their product as rice milk, and Klein said the pasta industry is facing a similar challenge from products marketed as vegan noodles.

And USA Rice met recently with officials from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about “fake organics” being shipped to the United States, and the recurring problem of some products branded they are grown in the U.S. when they’re not, he said.

“U.S. regulations are clear – imported products must be marked with the country of origin to the final consumer,” said USA Rice COO Bob Cummings last week.  “Portraying imported rice as U.S.-grown is not fair to consumers and our members and we are asking U.S. port officials to be vigilant.”  

The issue of fortification also plays a role in these products.

“Unless imported rice is ‘substantially transformed’ into another product, a marking of country of origin must accompany the product,” Cummings said.  “And if rice is marked as enriched but is not, the product is subject to regulatory action at the state and federal levels including removal from the market.”

Resources not an issue, NMPF says 

But even for products with standards of identity, the industry is having a tough time grabbing FDA’s attention. Dairy producers are desperately trying to move the needle when it comes to enforcing standards of identity issues, namely plant-based products carrying the name of “milk” or “yogurt.”

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) sent an Oct. 26 letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb imploring him to go after products marketed with names similar to  dairy foods.

The letter came on the heels of Gottlieb’s comments made at a meeting earlier this month that signaled FDA was interested in assuring accurate information on food labels.

“The lack of enforcement by FDA of the long-standing labeling provisions of various standards of identity for milk and dairy products and other pertinent federal labeling regulations has led to rampant consumer fraud related to the inferior nutrient content of these non-dairy products compared to their true dairy counterparts,” NMPF President and CEO James Mulhern said.

NMPF points to a marketplace survey of 244 plant-based beverages in the Washington, D.C. area in 2017 that found none of them was nutritionally equivalent to real milk, and delivered the nine essential nutrients provided by milk.

“Time and time again, FDA has cited a lack of personnel and resources to address the flagrant and ever-escalating labeling violations. But to be frank, that excuse has never rung true,” he said.

Mulhern pointed to the February 2010 event, in which FDA sent warning letters to 17 food companies in one day to notify them of false or misleading label claims, and that made a “dramatic difference” in food labeling.

“Now is your time to make a clear statement against the inaccurate and misleading labels commonly associated with the plant-based dairy imitators,” he wrote. “NMPF again urges FDA to take immediate regulatory action against dairy imitators with respect to applicable food labeling regulations, specifically as related to the use of an established standard of identity, and we would be happy to provide you with examples of labels to illustrate our concerns.”

On the other side of the debate, the Good Food Institute petitioned FDA this year to codify its existing practice of allowing plant-based food producers to use “straightforward” terms, such as soymilk or almond milk. 

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