In the rice industry's worst nightmare, a harried customer enters the grocery store. A representative from the trade group USA Rice says he envisions a single parent who's shopping quickly: He or she might go to the frozen food aisle, grab a package of fried rice, and check out before realizing that the worst has happened: That rice is not rice at all.
Touting a version of this scenario, at least four states have passed or are considering measures to ban food companies from using the word "rice" unless the product is made of, well, rice. Louisiana's measure, which passed the state Senate last week, targets cauliflower rice in a bid to protect the state's rice industry (and its top agricultural export). USA Rice supports these measures, arguing that, since the grain has no national "standard of identity"—a Food and Drug Administration definition for foods—rice is vulnerable to attacks from its cauliflower competitors.
On the surface, this is a fight between industry insiders: USA Rice has squared up against another trade group, the Plant Based Food Association. But both sides have positioned the consumer as the victim, using arguments based on health or free speech. The rice battle is happening alongside others at the state and national level over the meaning of milk and meat; some measures, like Louisiana's, target multiple plant-based alternatives.
'Rice Is a Grain, Not a Shape'
In the milk debate, the dairy industry has embraced former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb's infamous phrase: "An almond doesn't lactate." Michael Klein, vice president of marketing, communications, and domestic promotion for USA Rice, says the rice industry has a similar battle cry: "Rice is a grain, not a shape."
Klein argues that use of the rice moniker misrepresents the product and misleads consumers. He says industry groups would settle for "riced cauliflower," as opposed to "cauliflower rice"—a change that some frozen food brands, such as Birds Eye and Green Giant, have already made.
However, these arguments have not convinced anyone on the plant-based side when it comes to milk and meat. The same goes for rice: Isn't the general public able to distinguish between foods in the grocery store?
The Plant Based Foods Association, which represents 136 food companies (some of the biggest are Blue Diamond, Brookside, and Campbell Soup), has said these bans are inventing consumer concerns to protect traditional agriculture industries like rice, which have the benefit of support from United States Department of Agriculture-funded marketing services and checkoff programs.
"Consumers are not confused, they know exactly what they are buying and are choosing plant-based alternatives for a variety of reasons: health, environmental concerns, ethical reasons and taste," the group wrote in a letter to the Louisiana bill's sponsor, Senator Francis Thompson, as reported by the Advocate in Baton Rouge.
A Grain With No Name
According to Klein, the real threat is that rice's competitors (or as he calls them, "rice pretenders") have started to mimic their packaging. For example, he says one brand has adopted a hue suspiciously close to "Uncle Ben's orange."
Some of this packaging also contains health claims, which are under the purview of the FDA. The brand RightRice markets its blend of lentils, chickpeas, and green peas as "healthier" and more nutritious than rice, calling it a product for people who no longer eat the grain but want to "enjoy rice again." Klein objects to such marketing. "It implies rice is wrong," he says, noting that such products have a "completely different nutrient profile."
While the FDA does not regulate "rice" itself, it does define "standards of identity" for 300 foods across 20 categories. Sherbet gets one; so do peanut butter and milk. Any manufacturer claiming to sell these products must meet the FDA's specifications, or risk a lawsuit. The rules are the reason that food companies have had to maintain a certain ratio of cherries for every frozen cherry pie—one of several regulations the Trump administration has proposed to roll back this year, the Associated Press reports.
Klein points out that rice makes an appearance in the Codex Alimentarius, an internationally recognized list of food standards from the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Here, it's defined as "whole and broken kernels obtained from the species Oryza sativa L." But it has no standard of identity in the U.S., meaning state-level laws are the only guidelines defining rice.
Battle of the Crops
It's no secret that agriculture interests have pushed these measures at the state level. In Louisiana, the Advocate reports that representatives from the rice and cattle industries have backed the bill.
The four states that are contemplating these bans—Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas—are among the biggest rice producers in the U.S. Most of the country's rice comes from the Arkansas prairie, Mississippi Delta, Gulf Coast, and California's Sacramento Valley. "Things are pretty tough for farmers as it is," Klein says. "Anything that threatens those folks and their livelihood is a problem."
The dairy industry claims it's lost more than a billion dollars in sales to plant-based milk competitors. Klein fears this could happen to the U.S. rice industry. He says that, when alternative rice products began to emerge about three years ago, one of the first calls he made was to a dairy industry trade group.
Unlike the milks, rice and cauliflower may not seem like natural foes: Rice is a global food staple, and the U.S. exports about half its crop. Meanwhile, overall U.S. vegetable consumption is falling, but cauliflower is on the rise. Of course, most people who buy riced alternatives do so to accommodate a dietary restriction. (A pending patent for a riced cauliflower blend offers a gluten-free substitute for wheat-based dough "with regards to mouth feel, texture, [and] flavor.")
So how realistic is that image of a single mom in the grocery store, shopping blindly for rice? There's some evidence that American consumers misinterpret food labels, and that packaging measures fail to improve health across classes. Choosing between cauliflower and rice is not as significant a health decision as that of milk or meat substitutes, nor can personal choice significantly mitigate agriculture's carbon footprint. But if the rice industry has its way, this debate will play out in legislation instead of the frozen food aisle.