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Arkansas signs a resolution to adopt standard of identity for rice

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The rice industry is hailing lawmakers in the state of Arkansas, who last week passed a resolution committing to set a standard of identity for “rice,” which would ensure that the term is only used to label products that actually contain rice.

Last week Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R.) signed the joint resolution from the state House and Senate that also urges Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to establish a similar standard for rice and its wild rice relatives on a national level.

Unlike most commercials grains in the United States, rice does not have a standard of identity set by FDA. And that has been an issue for rice producers who have argued that the lack of a standard is allowing some food companies to mislead consumers by using the term “rice” in vegetable products that have been “riced,” but do not actually contain rice, such as cauliflower rice.

In Arkansas, which is a major U.S. rice producer, lawmakers have recognized the problem and their resolution specifically states that consumers in Arkansas and in the United States “deserve to be protected from the negative effects of intentionally misleading labeling” and that they may be “misled or confused by the labeling of food products using the word ‘rice’ in their description and marketing that inaccurately represents the nutritional composition” of those products.

“[F]ood products labeled or marketed using the term ‘rice’ should actually contain or be derived from rice grains or wild rice,” the resolution states.

The resolution defines rice as the “whole or broken kernels obtained from the species Oryza sativa L. or wild rice defined by the four species of grasses from the genus Zizania," a definition that is supported by the Arkansas Rice Federation and that is very similar to the standard of identity for rice adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which is the food standards body of the United Nations.

The resolution states that the Arkansas Senate and House of Representatives will work to pass “appropriate state legislation” to establish a standard of identity “using a common understanding of the term ‘rice’” and urges federal regulators to do the same on national level.

The resolution represents a major victory for the Arkansas Rice Federation (ARF), which has been asking state lawmakers to take a stance against products in a way that, according to the federation, misleads consumers.

Lauren Waldrip, the group’s executive director, testified on the issue before the joint Arkansas Senate and House Committee on Agriculture in December and related the trade group’s concern that vegetables that are being “riced” are being marketed as a healthier form of rice.

Those products, which include Cauli Rice, Miracle Rice, Better than Rice and Green Giant’s Cauliflower Fried Rice, often don’t include rice, Waldrip told the committee. And, because they are often stocked alongside rice in grocery stores, can easily mislead consumers, she said. 

“Our industry has made significant investments developing and building the brand we have for rice,” Waldrip said in December. “These companies have made it clear that they intend to capitalize on that very brand.  

“Consumers have the right to know honestly and transparently what they are purchasing,” she added. “We don’t want consumers who want to purchase rice being tricked into buying something other than rice. Rice is a grain, not a shape.”

“Our industry has made significant investments developing and building the brand we have for rice.These companies have made it clear that they intend to capitalize on that very brand." - Laura Waldrip, Arkansas Rice Federation   

For now the language of the resolution in Arkansas does not encompass all types of rice the U.S. produces, as it does not mention African rice (Oryza glaberrima), which is a separate, but related heirloom species grown in small quantities around the country.

But according to Waldrip, the resolution is not intended to exclude such varieties.

“It’s a first step for the Arkansas legislature to establish a statewide, and someday a nationwide, standard of identity that eliminates any lack of clarity in the marketplace about what rice truly is.  The purpose is not to exclude other rice types, but to hold rice imposters accountable,” Waldrip told USA Rice on March 21.

USA Rice, which advocates globally for all sectors of the U.S. rice industry, agrees with that view and has hailed the Arkansas resolution as step that could potentially lay the groundwork for establishing a definition of identity for rice nationwide in the United States.

“This resolution is important because we are seeing a definite clash in the marketplace from the confluence of consumers wanting to know exactly what they are eating and advances in food science that allows developers to chase any kind of trend and spit out a product," said Michael Klein, vice president of domestic promotion at USA Rice, in a post on the group’s website.

According to Klein, USA Rice has already raised this issue several times on the federal level, in talks with both FDA and USDA.

“We will continue to press for a standard of identity for rice and proper product representation in the marketplace and can now point to the Arkansas resolution as positive steps,” Klein wrote.

The rice industry is not the only sector that has asked FDA to step up and either create or bolster enforcement of a standard of identity.

Over the past year, dairy groups have appealed to both FDA and Congress to enforce the standard of identity for milk and force plant-based milk producers to drop terms such as “milk,” “cheese” or “yogurt” from the labels of products that do not contain milk obtained from animals. FDA has an established standard for milk under the Code of Federal Regulations, which defines it as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” But the agency has not been strict in enforcing it, dairy advocates have complained. 

And in January, Panera asked FDA to come up with a standard of identity for eggs, defining eggs as “food made from cracked shell eggs” without additives or further processing. The request came in because Panera was releasing a new line of “100% fresh egg” sandwiches and realized that there is no standard to differentiate it from the egg sandwiches at competitors, many of which contain a number of additives.

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