Citing a crisis in the rice industry, 16 members of Congress from Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas sent letters to the president asking for immediate help in the form of P.L. 480 Food for Peace and other overseas government assistance programs.

The letters noted that, in the last six months, one-fifth of the nation’s rice mills have closed, been sold or declared bankruptcy. The latest was Liberty Rice Mill of Kaplan, La., which is under the temporary receivership of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.

“The delay in food aid allocations has gone on too long,” said Michael Rue, a California rice producer and chairman of the USA Rice Federation’s International Policy Committee. “Additional measures are needed immediately to increase U.S. rice exports through food.”

The U.S. Rice Producers Association, meanwhile, has asked Congress to incorporate a set of recommendations for improving and reforming U.S. food assistance programs. (See accompanying box.)

The congressional letters explained that food aid programs account for 20 percent of total U.S. rice exports or about 500,000 metric tons of rice per year over the last two fiscal years. However, only 200,000 metric tons of rice have been programmed for U.S. food aid for the current fiscal year.

“This would represent 4 percent of the total tonnage of all commodities programmed for food aid, compared to 8 percent in some years,” a USA Rice Federation spokesman said, adding that the delays are harming the economies of the rice-producing states.

“This is a serious situation, and we’re pleased that legislators from all six of the rice-growing states have recognized that by calling on President Bush to take immediate action in issuing a rice food aid initiative,” said Gary Sebree, chairman of the U.S. Rice Producers Group, which represents the producer segment of the Federation.

“The sharp decline in rice food aid allocations has had a devastating impact on the rice industry,” said John Denison, an Iowa, La., rice producer. “Many mills, especially in south Louisiana, are running at just 20 to 30 percent of capacity.”

Texas mills are facing similar problems, said Lee Adams of American Rice Inc., in Houston, Texas. “Many of our mills are shut down with no rice to mill,” he noted. “Food aid accounts for a large percentage of millings in South Texas. Without that business, the financial loss for rice-growing communities — producers and millers alike — is tremendous.”

Rice Millers Association Chairman Thomas Ferrara of Greenville, Miss., gave Sen. Thad Cochran of his state credit for beginning the initiative.

“Our thanks go to Sen. Cochran for his leadership,” he said. “Meaningful and immediate increases in food aid now could mean the difference between survival and financial disaster for rice mills in this region.”

Besides Cochran, other members of Congress signing the letters were:

Sens. Tim Hutchinson and Blanche Lincoln and Reps. Marion Berry and Mike Ross of Arkansas; Sen. Barbara Boxer and Reps. Cal Dooley, Doug Ose and Mike Thompson of California; Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu and Reps. Chris John and John Cooksey of Louisiana; Sens. Kit Bond and Jean Carnahan of Missouri; and Nick Lampson of Texas.

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