Arkansas’ new truth-in-labeling law targets rice imposters

Vicky BoydThe Arkansas Legislature recently passed a measure that sets strict definitions for a host of agricultural products, including rice, and requires food companies to accurately label their products. Gov. Asa Hutchison subsequently signed it into law, creating Act 501.

The state legislation is an offshoot of efforts by USA Rice federally to have the Food and Drug Administration establish a standard of identity for rice. Both drives were prompted by several companies marketing vegetable- and legume-based products — some of which even resemble rice kernels — under the “rice” moniker.

Although Arkansas rice producers may benefit from the new law, Lauren Waldrip Ward, executive director of Arkansas Rice, says it has far-reaching implications.

“Yes, our rice farmers have spent decades developing a brand that consumers associate with safe and wholesome food,” she says. “But it’s not just about the rice farmer — this protects all Arkansans, so consumers know what they’re purchasing. It just requires the food companies to tell the truth.”

Titled “Truth in Labeling of Agricultural Products that are Edible by Humans,” Act 501 establishes definitions for beef, beef products, pork, pork products, poultry, meat, meat products and rice.

Rice, as defined in the act, “means the whole, broken, or ground kernels or byproducts obtained from the species Oryza sativa L. or Oryza glaberrima, or wild rice, which is obtained from one (1) of the four (4) species of grasses from the genus Zizania or Porteresia.”

The law, to be enforced by the Arkansas Bureau of Standards, also contains penalties depending on whether the mislabeling was unintentional or intentional and whether it was a first or subsequent offense.

Although Arkansas’ labeling requirements will be stricter than those nationally, Ward says she doesn’t believe they infringe on interstate commerce.

“The federal law says you can’t discriminate against any product to protect an economic interest,” she says. “We can’t say, ‘California, you can’t ship wines to Arkansas because we already have wineries.’ We feel we’re protecting a non-economic interest, which are Arkansans.”

Ward says she also doesn’t believe the new labeling requirements will place an undue burden on food manufacturers.

“I don’t think requiring them to tell the truth is any undue burden,” Ward says. “We don’t have any problems with these products. We just want consumers to be informed with transparent labeling.”

She compared the mislabeling of vegetable-based rice imposters to automobile branding.

“You can’t put a Cadillac label on a Kia and call it a Cadillac,” Ward says. “I don’t think you can put a rice label on cauliflower and call it rice.”