Oct 02, 2019
WASHINGTON, DC – Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a public meeting to discuss the FDA’s efforts to modernize standards of identity for foods (SOI). USA Rice President & CEO Betsy Ward presented public comments to FDA officials and spoke with representatives from the food and agriculture industries on the importance of adopting an SOI for rice in the United States and protecting consumers from the misleading marketing of rice pretenders.
While CODEX, the international food safety standard of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO), defines rice as “whole or broken kernels from the Oryza sativa L. plant,” there currently is no SOI for rice in the U.S. with the exception of enriched rice. This is in stark contrast to most commercial grains, which have national SOIs defined and enforced by the FDA.
This has become an ever-growing problem in recent years, as more and more vegetables and pulse-based flour products masquerading as rice have cropped up on retail shelves next to bags of actual rice. These rice imposters, often vegetables processed into small pieces, do not have the same dietary or nutritional profile as rice yet are marketed as rice products. While both rice and cauliflower products are healthy, they fit different essential nutrient categories.
“These standards exist to protect against consumer deception,” said Ward in her testimony. “The current use of the common or usual name “rice” has created confusion in the marketplace. Rice is a grain, not a shape. We recommend that these guidelines be adapted into formal standards of identity in the United States to meet consumer expectations from a nutritional and culinary standpoint, as well as allow for innovation.”
The meeting was part of the FDA’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy, a program designed to improve healthy dietary behavior and help reduce preventable death and disease related to poor nutrition. The public forum allowed industry leaders, health experts, and concerned citizens to weigh in on how the FDA can modernize SOI while facilitating innovation and flexibility for the development of healthier foods.
“USA Rice supports new product innovation and the use of pulse-based flours to create new and innovative products,” Ward continued. “It is not our goal to limit such product development, but to ensure that all products are clearly labeled and not deceptive. We believe a standard of identity for rice will do that.”
The meeting also featured breakout sessions focused on nutrition, innovation, and consumer expectations, where attendees discussed the relationship between the establishment and enforcement of food standards and innovation in nutrition. During these sessions, Ward stressed that SOIs and innovation are not at odds. “Providing a standard of identity allows for innovation while maintaining customer expectations. Protecting rice’s SOI promotes honesty and fair dealings while ensuring products labeled as rice meet the nutritional profile consumers expect. Ensuring a concept is protected does not limit innovation into different products.”
On the question of how SOIs can support nutritional goals, Ward commented that SOIs “do not pose a barrier to production of more nutritious food. Lack of standard definitions creates ambiguity and paths to consumer confusion. Currently, anything can call itself rice. While cauliflower can be riced, the final product is not rice as consumers understand the name. Calling this product “rice” does not promote honesty and fair dealings in the interest of consumers.”
She went on to say that the CODEX rice definition “provides great flexibility for nutritional advancement, while clearly defining its key characteristics. The CODEX provides a standard for the use of the term “rice” and also protects its use. Rice is an identity that should be reserved for rice grains.”
In March of 2018, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a resolution establishing an SOI for rice using the common understanding of the term “rice.” In June of this year, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed similar legislation in his state that goes into effect next October. Such actions on the state level, as well as making rice’s voice heard at FDA meetings such as last week’s, are crucial steps toward achieving a national SOI for rice and protecting consumers from the misleading marketing of rice pretenders.