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State lawmakers are joining a trend in agricultural states of trying to define what foods can be marketed as milk or meat, while also banning terms like cauliflower or broccoli rice.
From cauliflower rice to almond milk, Louisiana lawmakers want to clear consumers’ plates of foods they believe are “deceptively” labeled.
In an effort to educate consumers and protect the state’s agricultural industries, lawmakers advanced two proposals this week that would restrict how companies label and market foods like milk and beef.
A “truth in labeling” bill, which received final passage from the House and Senate this week, would add classifications to restrict the type of foods that could be labeled as meat products, rice, poultry, and sugar. Foods could not be labeled as meat or meat products unless they were derived from a beef, pork, poultry, alligator, farm-raised deer, turtle, domestic rabbit, crawfish, or shrimp carcass.
The legislation is supported by the state’s farmers and agriculture commissioner, who would be charged with its enforcement. The proposal targets food like Impossible Foods’ burgers, which markets its product as meat made from plants. Company representatives testified against the proposal, arguing it will actually deepen confusion for customers who right now understand they aren't eating an animal product.
The same measure would prohibit marketing of diced cauliflower—a popular low-carb substitute for rice—as “cauliflower rice.”
“We’re simply saying that what is on the label has to be what is in the product,” Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain told the House Agriculture Committee during testimony last week. “You cannot manufacture something to sell it using a standard that we know.”
Under the bill, Louisiana's agriculture commissioner would have the authority to issue civil penalties of up to $500 per violation, per day against manufacturers who mislabel products.
A separate bill that would restrict companies from labeling plant-based products as “milk” passed last week in both chambers and was been sent this week to Gov. John Bel Edwards for his signature.
Governor Edwards has not indicated whether he will sign either piece of legislation. A spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the governor wants to review the language of the bills, but added, "For the record, he likes real rice in his gumbo."
The milk legislation would become enforceable only if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also adopts similar guidelines on milk labeling.
Under the legislation, only milk from cows, goats, sheep, water buffalo, camels and other hoofed mammals could be classified as milk. Products derived from soy, almonds or coconuts could not be labeled as milk.
The dairy industry has been on the decline in Louisiana, shrinking from 300 dairy farms in 2003 to about 100 in 2017.
Some House members expressed skepticism when the measure was debated on Monday. “I’ve never been fooled to think tofu is actually meat,” said state Rep. Beryl Amedee, a Republican, according to The Advocate.
But proponents said the legislation is necessary to protect the state’s agriculture industry and to clarify the ingredients in food products.
Sen. Francis Thompson, the sponsor of both bills, told The Advocate that he had no problem with plant-based food substitutes but he wants them to be clearly defined.
“We’re not looking for things to shut people down. Those products are fine,” he said. “Those products are mislabeled.”
The momentum by Louisiana lawmakers follows similar action last year in Missouri, which became the first state in the nation to ban labeling of food products as meat unless they came from harvested livestock or poultry. Plant-based food company Tofurkey and advocacy group the Good Food Institute have challenged the Missouri law in federal court.
At least five other states, including Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, have passed similar measures this year.
The Plant Based Food Association, which opposed the Louisiana legislation, reports that sales of plant-based foods increased 20 percent in 2018 and topped $3.3 billion last year.
The association called the Louisiana bills “a misguided attack” that stifles companies’ free speech rights to label products with commonly understood words and phrases. The association proposed that lawmakers instead require producers to label foods so it is understood that the products are plant-based rather than derived from animals.
One Louisiana farmer who supported the bills said plant-based food producers were simply worried their products would sound less appetizing if they were forced to call them what they really are.
“Let me be clear. Rice is a grain, not a shape or a verb,” said Ross Thibodeaux, a rice farmer in Acadia Parish, according to the LSU Manship School News Service. “They will struggle moderately with consumers if they truthfully and honestly label these products for what they actually are: minced vegetable product or processed vegetable pieces.”
Andrea Noble is a Staff Correspondent at Route Fifty.