This is not the kind of news that rice farmers want to hear, RPA officials say.

Rice consumption has been on an increase in the United States since the late 1970s, and USDA projects 2002/2003 per capita consumption will reach a record 26.3 pounds, an increase of one-fourth pound from the previous year and double that for 1978/79.

USDA’s long-term forecast projects continued expansion over the next decade. The factors contributing to this expansion include a growing share of Asian and Hispanic Americans, a greater demand for ethnic foods, a variety of new rice products and some effective marketing tools.

Long grain rice accounts for the largest percentage of U.S. consumption projected at a record 88.7 million cwt for 2002/03 while medium and short grain rice usage in the domestic market is estimated at 36.3 million cwt.

“While 26.3 pounds per capita consumption is admirable, a different picture is painted when you break this statistic down,” according to Dwight Roberts, president and CEO of the US Rice Producers Association.

According to the USDA the domestic consumption figure includes not only table rice but usage in processed foods, breakfast cereals, beer manufacturing, pet foods and foreign imported rice. During a recent meeting with the USDA, a senior economist stated that if you remove the tonnage accounted for by pet food, the brewery industry and imported rice you have flat domestic table rice consumption.

Added Roberts, “this makes the 26.3 pounds per capita figure a very misleading statistic for farmers, and it indicates than your average American is not eating the amount of rice we thought.”

For American rice farmers who contribute hard earned check-off dollars in promotional efforts, the importation of rice from the foreign marketplace is of serious concern. As indicated by the USDA, imports of 13.2 million hundredweight in 2001/02 represented 11 percent of the domestic use, compared with less than 1 percent in 1980/81.

These imports are projected to continue increasing at a pace faster than overall consumption, said Roberts.

“As I talk to rice farmers in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and California, there is a consistent concern in regards to the effective use of check-off dollars that are designed to increase the consumption of American grown rice,” he says. “The time has come for the rice industry to re-evaluate how check-off dollars are used in the domestic marketplace, and we owe it to our farmers to make the necessary changes if we are going to participate in the expected expansion in domestic usage.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com