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Wednesday, July 17, 2019



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Analysis: Louisiana lawmakers push food label restrictions

Analysis: Louisiana lawmakers push food label restrictions

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's lawmakers are on a labeling binge this year, pushing ahead with food classification restrictions on milk, rice, meat, sugar, shrimp, and crawfish as they try to assist the state's agricultural industries.

The protectionist measures are provoking ridicule on social media, threats of litigation and objections from people who say they don't need the state telling them that almond milk isn't real milk.

But legislators say they're trying to make sure consumers know what they're buying, eating, and drinking, and they say they're trying to help bolster farmers and fishermen who are struggling.

Two of the so-called "truth in labeling" proposals — overwhelmingly backed by the Senate and awaiting debate in the House — come from Senate Agriculture Chairman Francis Thompson, a Democrat from rural Richland Parish.

One of the measures adds protections for meat, seafood, rice and sugar producers, making it unlawful for food manufacturers to market products such as "cauliflower rice" if there's no rice in it or "veggie meat patties" if they don't contain meat. Thompson's proposal is similar to legislation signed in Arkansas.

His second bill seeks to prohibit a beverage from being labeled as milk unless the product comes from a cow, goat or "other hooved mammals." In other words, the legislation targets soy milk, almond milk, and other synthetic milk alternatives.

"There's absolutely no issue with the quality of any of these other products," Thompson said during Senate debate of the milk labeling proposal. "I believe they're healthy beverages and critical to many consumers with allergies or food intolerance. But are they milk? No, they are not milk."

Sen. Dan Claitor, a Baton Rouge Republican, was one of two senators to oppose the milk labeling measure.

"One of my friends asked me about this bill and said, 'What more nanny state stuff are you guys going to do as far as regulating what we can and can't have?'" Claitor said.

The Plant Based Foods Association calls the restrictions unnecessary, saying products already are clearly labeled. The California-based organization objects to both of Thompson's bills, but isn't actively fighting the milk labeling measure, saying it has no practical impact.

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. But Thompson's other proposal gives Louisiana's agriculture commissioner enforcement authority when the law takes effect and calls for civil penalties up to $500 per violation, with each day a violation is identified as a separate offense.

The Plant Based Foods Association called the meat and rice labeling measure an attack on free speech rights, saying legal analysts don't believe such a law could survive a court challenge.

"The makers of plant-based meat alternatives already follow current regulations and clearly identify their products by using qualifiers such as 'meatless' or 'plant-based' or vegetarian,'" the organization said in a statement. "Consumers are not confused, they know exactly what they are buying and are choosing plant-based alternatives for a variety of reasons: health, environmental concerns, ethical reasons and taste."

Still, Thompson is moving ahead with both bills, backed by Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain and farmers.

While those two labeling restriction measures won Senate support, the House unanimously supported a separate proposal by Rep. Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, a Democrat from Lafourche Parish, that would require restaurants to notify customers if they serve imported crawfish or shrimp.

Gisclair called it a health issue, saying too little testing is done on shrimp or crawfish entering the United States from countries like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Clearly, the legislation also is a protectionist measure for Louisiana's seafood industry, which has long railed against foreign imports.

"We're allowing them to come in and destroy our industry — and make us sick on top of it," said Rep. Kenny Cox, a Natchitoches Democrat. "I just think that's a travesty."

Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris, the House Republicans' leader, argued the proposal could be burdensome to food retailers and suggested Gisclair didn't provide proof of any health threat. But as he realized the legislation was easily moving to the Senate for consideration, Harris voted in support with his colleagues.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte