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A package of food labeled "cauliflower rice" containing no actual rice will, later this year, be considered mislabeled in Arkansas and the manufacturer subject to a fine under a state law signed Monday.

HB1407, a bill led by Rep. David Hillman, R-Almyra, gained enough momentum through House and Senate committees the past two weeks to wind up on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's desk. He signed the bill Monday morning, creating Act 501.

The "truth in labeling" bill was filed about a month ago, and almost half of the states have entertained similar legislation that regulates the labeling of some food products, including foods called meat that are derived from plants or lab-grown cells of beef, pork or poultry.

"This law only affects people who want to deceive the public about how their food originated," Hillman said. "And if you're not trying to deceive the public, this will not affect you or any of the outlets who sell these products."

Arkansas is the sixth state to pass similar legislation into law, and the only one to include rice. Missouri, now defending itself against lawsuits because of a similar law, was the first.

Efforts to mandate labeling requirements at the state level for certain foods came from growing concerns in agricultural communities that shoppers are mistaking foods that claim to look, feel and taste like meat and poultry, for the real thing. Talks are being held at the federal level about proper labeling of such products, but nothing has been done yet.

Opponents of similar labeling laws argue they infringe on First Amendment rights and violate federal labeling laws that prohibit mislabeling.

"It's bad public policy," said Jessica Almy, director of the Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit in support of foods known as cell-based and plant-based meats. Almy said shoppers already know what they're buying at the store, otherwise they wouldn't buy it.

In the case of almond milk, "people clearly understand it comes from almonds" because it says so on the labels, she said.

But the rise of products marketed as milk that are made from rice, nuts or soy have hurt cow milk sales in recent years. Meat and poultry advocates fear a similar outcome as shoppers choose from a growing pantry of alternatives.

Farmers and members of the state's rice and cattle associations spoke mostly in favor of the "truth in labeling" bill a few weeks ago when it was discussed before the House Agriculture Committee. They said they did not want companies to piggyback on the name of products such as rice, meat and poultry with their imitation products.

John Hamilton, a rice farmer from White County, equated it to how dairy farmers are competing with products marketed as milk.

"That's not milk," Hamilton said in his testimony to the committee. "And I don't want to see rice get into a situation where we're having to fight this fight for 20 years like the dairy ... industry has."

The law, which takes effect 90 days after the 2019 session ends, imposes a $1,000 fine for each violation. Revenue from the fines is designated for the state Agriculture Department's Plant Board Fund.

The Arkansas Rice Federation worked with the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association and other farm groups on Act 501.

While only plant-based foods designed to appear like beef or chicken have reached store shelves, a recent agreement between the FDA and the USDA, the nation's two food inspection agencies, signaled that foods grown from animal cells in a laboratory are on the horizon.

Almy said a couple of years ago that two pioneers of laboratory-grown meat made claims it would be five years before the products are stocked in retail grocery store coolers, and ten years before the price falls enough to equal the price of hamburger.

Despite higher prices, she said some manufacturers plan to start selling meats made entirely with in-vitro animal cells to restaurants by the end of the year.

"It's not very far off," she said.

Business on 03/20/2019

Print Headline: Truth in labeling inked by governor

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