FDA’s enforcement against plant-based ‘milk’ may bode well for rice

eat more rice bumper sticker

A bumper sticker created by the Arkansas Rice Council says it all.

It appears the Food and Drug Administration may begin enforcing a standard of identity that defines milk as a “lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”

This would mean the plant-based beverages made from ingredients, such as almonds, soybeans, hemp and even rice, would have to change the term “milk” in their names. Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union already prohibit using milk in the name of a plant-based beverage.

Although rice is not among the more than 300 food items for which FDA has a standard, the agency’s actions nonetheless are encouraging.

For at least two years, USA Rice and the industry have been fighting against vegetable-based products with “rice” in their names, including Cauli Rice, Green Giant Riced Cauliflower, Trader Joe’s Rice Cauliflower and vegetable grower Apio’s Eat Smart Cauliflower Rice. The rice industry contends the names are too confusing to consumers.

Botanically speaking, rice is a grain produced on a relative of grass. As such, it’s considered a monocot. It belongs to the genus Oryza. Although wild rice belongs to another genus, Zizania, it still is a grass and is still a close relative of  commercial rice.

Cauliflower, on the other hand, is a Brassica related to broccoli and grows on a broadleaf plant, or a dicot.

“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,” USA Rice wrote in a letter to processors of the rice impersonators.

Arkansas — the nation’s largest rice-producing state — even went so far as to adopt a resolution that encourages state and federal governments to adopt a standard of identity for rice.

The vegetable processors counter by saying that consumers are smart enough to know that rice and cauliflower aren’t the same. They point to plant-based so-called milks as examples of how shoppers differentiate between the two. This reasoning may be moot if the FDA follows through with its promise.

The milk definition falls under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act that the FDA is charged with enforcing.

Take the standard of identify for peanut butter, for example. It must contain at least 90 percent peanuts and no more than 55 percent fat. If the spread doesn’t meet the definition, such as some of the low-fat products, it must be called peanut spread or sandwich spread but not peanut butter. Even mayonnaise has a strict definition recently upheld by the FDA.

Currently, the FDA has no standard of identity for rice, but USA Rice has asked the agency to look into its concerns.

Outside of the FDA going through rule-making, the solution is simple. Vegetable processors can begin to call their products with they are: cauliflower crumbles, cauliflower bits or cauliflower bites.

And the term “rice” should only apply to “whole or broken kernels from the Oryza sativa L. plant or the genus Zizania.”