The rice pretender war is heating up this spring as USA Rice is registering formal complaints and offering recommended fixes to purveyors of what the trade group terms “rice pretenders.”
“Rice pretenders are food products that are marketed as rice, but contain no rice at all,”says Paul Galvani, chairman of the USA Rice Domestic Promotion Committee that is spearheading this effort for the industry. “They are typically vegetable crumbles made to loosely resemble rice – which is fine. What is not fine, is marketing these products as rice in an attempt to get one more sale by misleading or confusing consumers.”
USA Rice sent formal complaints to several major supermarket chains: B&G Foods, owner of the Green Giant brand, and web-based recipe sites Yummly.com and Delish.com.
“We believe the way these ‘rice pretenders’ are being marketed, packaged, displayed, and sold trades on the good name, solid nutritional profile, and outstanding environmental record of U.S.-grown rice, intentionally creating consumer confusion that is doing harm to the U.S. rice industry,” the letters to the retail sector reads.
The letter goes on to suggest the products should be called “crumbles,” “minced” or “chopped” and be moved to the produce section where consumers would expect to find vegetables.
USA Rice has been tracking these products and first brought their concerns to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year.
“We told them quite plainly that rice is a grain, not a shape, and we urged FDA to adopt a standard of identity for rice,” Galvani says. “The agencies agree with us on the merits but we have yet to see any formal action from them. It could be as simple as FDA stating that they agree with the internationally scientific accepted definition of rice – ‘whole or broken kernels from the Oryza sativa L. plant.'”
Earlier this year, Arkansas, the number one rice-producing state in the nation, adopted a resolution that encourages the state and federal government to adopt a standard of identity for rice and offers a roadmap that could lead to enforceable regulations.
“When I discussed this issue with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last November he told me that when he says ‘rice,’ he knows just what he is thinking of – and it’s real rice. That’s good, but as more of these pretenders keep popping up in the marketplace, ‘knowing’ isn’t enough anymore. We need to clearly define and protect,” says Michael Klein, USA Rice vice president of domestic promotion who signed the letters.
Klein says all of the letters acknowledge the important role recipe developers, retail outlets and food manufacturers play in advancing U.S.-grown rice with consumers. But the letter requests accountability, transparency, and that steps be taken to avoid consumer confusion.
“We believe there is room in shopping carts for all of us, and while we recognize you have an obligation to sell products your customers want, and consumers should be allowed to purchase the food they desire – even rice pretender products – we want to ensure these choices are not made in error,” the letter says.
Klein says his industry will continue to press the government for enforceable standards and monitor the marketplace and call out companies misusing the word “rice,” and he asks for the public to send him examples they come across – of both proper and improper use of the word.
“I think there is a growing frustration amongst consumers who are tired of marketers trying to trick them,” Galvani says. “It doesn’t strike me as a particularly good strategy to market your product that contains zero rice as a rice dish simply because you know how popular rice is. Words matter and it’s going to catch up with you. If you’re proud of your cauliflower crumbles, shout it from the rooftops – but don’t shout my product’s name and then sell the gathering crowd yours.”
This article originally appeared in USA Rice’s “The Daily.”