Soy milk, cauliflower in crosshairs of Louisiana lawmakers

Posted at 1:01 PM, Jun 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-03 14:28:50-04

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Cauliflower rice, almond milk and veggie burgers have become targets in Louisiana’s legislative session, with lawmakers seeking to protect their farmers by adding new limits on how food products can be labeled.

The House and Senate have backed food classification restrictions on milk, rice, meat, sugar, shrimp and crawfish, with the last bill nearing final passage Monday with a vote from House lawmakers.

Supporters say they’re making sure consumers know what they’re buying and protecting farmers who have spent millions to brand their products.

“It’s just simply saying you call it what it is, don’t piggyback off of what our Louisiana farmers have spent years and years marketing,” said Crowley Rep. John Stefanski, a Republican who lives in the heart of Louisiana rice-growing country, during Monday’s debate.

Opponents say they don’t think consumers are bewildered in the grocery store aisle and the laws would be creating confusion.

“It will likely limit some of the products that are available to us,” said Rep. Beryl Amedee, a Houma Republican.

The two so-called “truth in labeling” bills come from Senate Agriculture Chairman Francis Thompson, a Democrat from rural Richland Parish, and are backed by Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain.

Gov. John Bel Edwards hasn’t said whether he’ll sign them into law.

The first measure targets soy milk, almond milk and other synthetic milk alternatives, seeking to prohibit a beverage from being labeled as milk unless the product comes from a cow, goat or “other hooved mammals.” The legislation reached Edwards’ desk with a 36-2 Senate vote and 70-27 House vote.

When the House debated the bill, Rep. Andy Anders talked of Louisiana’s struggling dairy farming operations.

“We’re just trying to help our industry,” said Anders, a Democrat from Vidalia.

But Rep. Raymond Crews, a Bossier Parish Republican, called the measure “silliness really,” saying shoppers understand what they’re buying and products already are clearly labeled.

“I think we have reasonable people in the state of Louisiana,” Crews said.

The milk bill only allows enforcement of labeling standards if the U.S. Food and Drug and Administration uses such standards nationally, as dairy farmers are requesting.

Thompson’s second bill adds protections for meat, seafood, rice and sugar producers. The measure would make it unlawful for food manufacturers to market products such as “veggie meat patties” if they don’t contain meat or “cauliflower rice” if there’s no rice in it, though it could be called “riced cauliflower” instead.

Louisiana’s agriculture commissioner would have enforcement authority when the law takes effect, with civil penalties up to $500 per violation. The penalties would be levied against the manufacturers that affix the labels to products, though it’s unclear how the state could enforce those fines for companies produced in other states.

A divided House voted 58-29 Monday for that bill, sending it back to the Senate for a review of House language changes before the bill can reach the governor.

The legislation has been ridiculed on social media as another example of lawmakers spending time on useless debates and overregulating commerce.

Monroe Republican Rep. Jay Morris rejected arguments the measure is a “nanny state” bill.

“This bill simply requires the truth. Who can be against the truth? It doesn’t mandate choices,” he said.

Already reaching Edwards’ desk is separate legislation that requires Louisiana restaurants to tell customers if they sell imported shrimp or crawfish. The measure sailed through the Legislature with unanimous support and strong backing from Louisiana’s seafood industry, which has criticized foreign imports.