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U.S. rice quality and quantifying customer demands

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One key to fixing complaints about U.S. rice quality is for importers to be specific about what they want.

All interviewed for this story agree that the U.S. government is unlikely to take action. “It would take too many levels of bureaucracy to go through,” says Hobbs. “It would literally take an act of Congress to get the grading standards changed.

“There’s nothing that says the (Central Americans) can’t go straight to the exporters – and some of them already do this --  and say, ‘look, we want a contract for U.S. Number Two, or better, and we also want a contract for a separate standard for chalk. That’s what we want our shipment to meet.’”

Since government intervention isn’t the answer, the situation will eventually be settled through private contracts. “The Central Americans just have to make their standards clearly known, clearly quantifiable – take out all the subjectivity and provide an objective standard – and then we’ll all be able to get on the same page.”

In late May, FECARROZ sent a letter (more here) to the US Rice Producers Association (USRPA). Among other things, the letter attempted to bring some clarity to those needed standards. Now, the U.S. rice industry is presented with a new set of questions. How to segregate by variety? Segregate by quality? How to aggregate enough rice of a certain variety and quality for an export sale?

“That’s an infrastructure concern that we’re going to have to face,” says Hobbs. “We’re not to that step yet but it is coming.”

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Will that process take years or can it be ratcheted up quickly?

“That’s a good question but we don’t have years to do it,” says Hobbs. “We’re losing markets as we speak.

“Usually, the rice industry as a whole is pretty quick to get together and react to things. Look at the (GM trait) issue that happened a few years ago. (The industry) can react fast.”

To aid in that, Russell Marine is currently working with the GeneScan lab to develop analysis that can distinguish, within a rice sample, the percentage of hybrid versus non-hybrid kernels. “That would at least allow us to quantify and be scientific when segregating by variety or just hybrid versus non-hybrid,” says Hobbs.

In order to make the needed changes across the board, there will have to be incentives for producers’ chief focus to be on quality.

“Right now, the only incentive is quantity – there’s no quality incentive,” says Hobbs. “The more yield (farmers) can get out of a crop, the more they’re paid. So, why plant a conventional variety that will yield less even if it produces higher quality rice?

“That incentive has to come from the end-user, the buyers, the Central Americans. Most of them want higher quality but they aren’t willing to pay for it.”

And as the letter states, FECARROZ has the option of looking for their rice needs farther south as less than two percent of South American-grown rice is hybrid.

Next up: Central Americans ramp up demands? 

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