WRKF

"Truth In Labeling" Law Is A Win For Louisiana Farmers, But Key Questions Remain

Jun 26, 2019

Rice is one of Louisiana's signature agricultural products. But it’s more than just the base for gumbos and étouffées - it’s an economic driver across the state. So lawmakers in Louisiana recently passed a bill aimed at protecting the industry by defining what is rice and what isn't. 

The move had the support of farmers across the state, like Ross Thibodeaux. He and his family manage a major operation, farming 10,000 acres of rice, crawfish and soybeans in Acadia Parish. 

The fields are a patchwork, skipping back and forth between the different crops. He says Louisiana's new "truth in labeling" law will help protect his products against alternatives, like cauliflower rice.

"When you go to the store and you see these products, and the biggest, boldest word on most of them is rice," Thibodeaux said.  "I mean, I think they're trying to hop on the brand recognition of rice to sell more of their product."

Louisiana has the third largest rice industry in the country with more than 400,000 acres in production each year. But Louisiana farmers are having to compete with more foreign-grown rice varieties like jasmine and basmati finding their way onto U.S. grocery store shelves.

Michael Deliberto is an agricultural economist at LSU. He says popular rice alternatives like cauliflower rice pose a new threat to an already struggling industry.

"I think any time the opportunity for shelf space is lost to other types of food products, it's a chance that the Louisiana industry is not getting to tell their story,"Deliberto said.

So the state government is stepping in. 

The Legislature joined more than a dozen states this year when it passed a "truth in labeling" bill, restricting what they call deceptive labeling of food products like cauliflower rice or plant-based burgers.

Lawmakers sold it as a way to combat consumer confusion and protect the state’s agricultural industries.

Many states focused their bills on cell-cultured meat, an industry that is in its infancy and years away from reaching consumers. Louisiana’s law defines cell-cultured meat as well, but in addition to a slew of other agricultural products, like beef, poultry, pork, sugar - even alligator and turtle.

State lawmakers gave the Department of Agriculture broad authority to craft the rules and regulations.  Mike Strain, Commissioner of Agriculture, said enforcing the new regulations will be as simple as adding one item to the checklist for state food inspectors.

"When you buy beef or you buy crawfish or you buy rice, it's my responsibility to make sure that you're getting beef, crawfish or rice," Strain said.

Strain lobbied for the bill, saying it was needed to address shortcomings in existing federal regulations.

"If you look under the USDA definitions of food products, there are more than 80 pages of specific definitions," Strain said. 

"But they never went in and defined meat or beef or pork or chicken because we always assumed that would be commonly understood," he said, adding that in the absence of federal rules, alternative food manufacturers have benefited from mislabeling their products as "rice" or "meat."

States, including Louisiana, are passing "truth in labeling" laws to get Washington’s attention.

But opponents say these laws are making it more difficult for producers of plant-based alternatives to do business.

Nicole Manu is an attorney with The Good Food Institute, a DC-based organization advocating for plant-based alternatives to meat.

She says these laws are unnecessary and that many violate the First Amendment by limiting which words companies can and cannot use to sell their product.

"In a lot of these states, they may just decide, 'you know what, we're not going to sell there at all,'" Manu said.

The Good Food Institute sued Missouri over the "truth in labeling" law it passed in 2018. Manu says the organization has not decided to file suit in Louisiana, but the broadness of the bill makes it a likely target for litigation.

State officials have a lot to hash out before the law takes effect October 1, 2020. It remains to be seen if these regulations will make it harder for consumers to find cauliflower rice, or if the new labels will provide the protection the Louisiana rice industry is looking for.