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What's Rice? A Louisiana Senate Bill Will Decide

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Laine Kaplan-Levenson
/
WWNO

Lawmakers in the state of Louisiana are debating when food products can be called “rice.” The labeling question comes as newer products—think cauliflower “rice”—are competing for consumer dollars. But is that product, made from small pieces of cauliflower, really entitled to call itself “rice”? In states where traditional rice is a major agricultural crop, some say no.

Lawmakers in the state of Louisiana are debating when food products can be called “rice.” The labeling question comes as newer products—think cauliflower “rice”—are competing for consumer dollars. But is that product, made from small pieces of cauliflower, really entitled to call itself “rice”? In states where traditional rice is a major agricultural crop, some say no. Laine Kaplan-Levenson has the story.

Even if you’ve personally tried cauliflower rice, Michael Klein will still tell you, “there's no such thing as cauliflower rice.” Klein is a spokesperson for USA rice, and makes clear his opinion that ‘rice is a grain, not a shape.” That’s what’s up for debate right now in the Louisiana legislature. Senate Bill 152 provides for ‘truth in labeling’ of agricultural products. Klein refers to these cauliflower rice brands as ‘rice pretenders.’ He says calling cauliflower, ‘rice’, is misleading and could confuse customers, who might be buying these products by mistake. For instance, you go to the grocery store to buy frozen fried rice, and then go home and realize, you bought a bag of minced vegetables. “Some of those sales are sales that rice didn't make” Klein believes.

But Plant Based Foods Association consultant Michael Robbins says these sales are not an accident. “Consumers are not confused. They know exactly what they’re buying.” He says more people are choosing cauliflower rice as a healthier alternative to traditional rice. Low to no carb trends like the keto diet make these options that much more desirable for people swearing off grains. Robbins says this bill is simply an attack on a new and fast-growing industry.

Cauliflower is having quite the moment. According to Nielsen data, sales of cauliflower rice brought in $104 million dollars last year, a 50 increase from the year before. “And we believe the numbers will be even better for this year” says Robbins.

But those sales are still much lower than traditional rice sales in 2018. That reached  $2.2 billion dollars nationwide, up about 4% from the previous year. Jeff Durand is standing inside a massive grain silo on his rice farm in St. Martinville, Louisiana. He’s on top of pounds and pounds of rice, that’s stored in a hot, metal silo to dry out. Durand takes pride in his crop, and hates that some of these cauliflower rice brands market themselves as better than his product.

“They shouldn’t say that our rice is wrong, and theirs is right.”

He’s also worried about competition. Louisiana is the country’s third largest rice producing state. So far, Durand’s bottom line has stayed steady, but agricultural economist Dr. Michael Deliberto predicts that if rice alternatives continue to rise, his sales could drop. “Because eventually if people are going to switch to those products they're going to shift away from rice.”

Deliberto says rice export numbers are starting to slip. Other countries are producing more and more of their own rice, and no longer buying American rice. This puts pressure on the domestic market to not only stay steady, but increase sales. And with a new competitor on the shelf, Dr. Deliberto says that might be tough. “It comes down to market share. If people aren't buying your product they're buying something else.” 

Rice farmer Jeff Durand feels that threat. “Competing with another company that's saying it's rice and it's not actually rice is discouraging.”

If the bill passes, these brands will have to stop calling their products cauliflower rice. They’ll be able to call it minced cauliflower, crumbled cauliflower, or even riced cauliflower. They just can’t call it cauliflower rice.

Holly Barrett is perusing the freezer section of her local Rouse’s grocery store. She’s heard of cauliflower rice, but doesn’t buy it. “If the native ingredient is not rice, which we happily grow here, in our rice fields, then it’s not ok.”

Barrett works at the Southern food and beverage museum, and told me there just so happens to be a rice exhibit there right now. “And cauliflower not in our exhibit” she says with a laugh. Barrett supports senate bill 152. Similar bills have already passed in Arkansas and Missouri, and are being challenged in court on first amendment grounds. If it passes in Louisiana, the courts will likely have to decide if rice is a grain, or a shape.

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