Arkansas steps up fight against rice pretenders, but FDA still lags

Betsy Ward

By Betsy Ward
President and CEO
USA Rice

For the past several years, we have been taking on rice pretenders — that’s food marketed as some new-fangled rice that contains no rice at all. And last month, pretenders were dealt a heavy blow, thanks to a common-sense bill passed by the Arkansas Legislature that promotes truth in labeling of agricultural products.

The bill establishes a standard of identity for rice in Arkansas, meaning you can’t call your product “rice” unless it is made from whole or broken kernels from the Oryza sativa L., Oryza glaberrima plants or wild rice.

This is important because rice still lacks a federal standard of identity — something we are working with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to fix. As the number of rice pretenders on the market continues to grow, consumers are confused, the reputation of rice is being harmed and these vegetable products are taking sales away from us.

Call these wannabes what they are

It has never been our position that these other products shouldn’t exist. If adventurous consumers want to eat their cauliflower in crumble form or if people like to eat lentils and chickpeas in a narrow, extruded shape, that’s their business.

We just insist they be called what they are and not what they aren’t. They are vegetables in different shapes; they are not rice.

We are all aware that there is a kitchen tool commonly called a “potato ricer” that chefs use to make super smooth mashed potatoes or gnocchi. Now someone has figured out that you can put other foods through the machine, and you get something that kind of looks like rice.

It isn’t rice. It doesn’t taste like rice. It doesn’t cook like rice. It doesn’t have the same nutritional value as rice. Yet unscrupulous companies are taking advantage of consumers’ love of rice and marketing this mush as rice.

Rice is a grain, not a shape

We’ve asked the FDA to confirm this – they have already signed on to the United Nations’ international food standards, or CODEX, that does just this. So why not bring some of that common sense home? Without an official standard of identity, we need to rely on people’s sense of fairness and moral compass.

In letters to food manufacturers, retail store and media companies that distribute recipes, we have repeatedly asked them to label their products accurately, as either “riced or minced” or something similar. And we ask them to display these products in the correct part of their stores. They are vegetables and should be displayed with other produce.

It is worth noting that the Green Giant brand, owned by B&G Foods, is doing it right. They initially launched a product called “cauliflower rice,” and we lodged our objections to the name. Today, they have no fewer than 11 vegetable-based, rice-shaped products, but they refer to them as “Riced Veggies.” We appreciate their honesty and wish them success in helping Americans eat more vegetables.

But not everyone has this sense of honor, and so we will continue to work to protect “rice” and encourage FDA to give us our standard of identity. Then we will have the ammunition we need to be aggressive in the fight against rice pretenders.