It’s a sensitive subject, but for the last few years, some importers of U.S. rice have repeatedly complained about slackening quality. No region has complained more than Central America, represented by the Central America Rice Federation, FECARROZ.
The Central Americans typically buy U.S. paddy rice and mill it back home. Complaints of poor milling, chalkiness, and cooking quality have come with increasing frequency.
The situation appears to have reached a boil.
In a May 30 letter to Dwight Roberts, president and CEO of the US Rice Producers Association (USRPA) – which also went to the USDA’s John Pitchford, Departmental Initiatives and International Affairs, and Stephen M. Huete, Agricultural Counselor, stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica – FECARROZ lays out its case. The organization also makes it clear that without resolution of its complaints there will be further consequences.
The letter reads:
“The Central America Rice Federation, FECARROZ, has developed a series of actions in search for solutions to problems over the last five years regarding the quality of rice produced in the U.S.
“For many years, we have done business with the U.S. rice sector; however we believe that the rice produced by this sector and dispatched to Central American countries considerably changed the quality, which has generated great economic losses for the partners.
“In spite of demarches to producers and government authorities, we note with great concern that the corrective actions that could definitely resolve the issues raised have not been taken.
“Once again, it is important as a federation and as good commercial partners to leave a record of our consumers’ dissent about to the quality of rice produced in the U.S. This forces us to look for alternative markets to replace the rice imports to Central America.
“It is our understanding that countries like Colombia and Mexico have the same concerns, which means that the lack of attention to this issue will inevitably lead to the loss of these markets, as Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have rice of excellent quality and are attentive to the behavior of U.S. rice production.
“While rice producers in the United States make a higher profit by producing hybrid rice, this has had a negative impact on traditional markets for its high chalkiness and white belly, and this rice is rejected by the consumer for its cooking and uniformity issues. It is also the opinion of this federation that producers who get this benefit will not be willing to change varieties with better features for the customer.
“For producers, the important thing is directly related to field yield and performance in grain mill, but for Central America, the quality refers to the specific characteristics of appearance, dimensions (length, width and thickness), grain shape, color, chalkiness, white belly, weight of polished rice, broken grains, grain translucency, brightness, cooking quality, and mill performance.
“(FECARROZ) has assessed hybrid varieties to identify those that best perform when cooked. So far, none presented a good cooking performance; on the contrary, hybrids showed uniformity of cooked grains and very little looseness, far from what our customers require.
“Other actions analyzed by FECARROZ are: delivery of rice without mixture of conventional varieties and hybrids, the purchase of rice with preserved identity, formal claim to the (USDA) regarding the interpretation of chalky grain, strategies with embassies and foreign trade ministries, among others.
“Despite USRPA support in dealing with this problem, once again, we believe it is necessary to call the attention of rice producers in the United States about our problems, which, within a short term, will bring very unfavorable implications, mainly for the loss of more than 80 percent of their traditional market.
“Hoping our request is met expeditiously, with consideration to the consequences the issue might have upon our industries, we remain respectfully yours.”
Roberts -- who maintains that hybrid rice is a vital part of the U.S. farming landscape -- says he wasn’t expecting the letter but it didn’t surprise him. “The U.S. rice industry has been involved in a quality debate with customers of U.S. rice for some time. It’s especially been an issue since the large harvest of 2010, when we had significant heat stress to the rice crop, particularly in the Delta.”
In late August, Tena Bresler, RiceTec president, provided a statement answering several questions posed by Farm Press. Provided unedited, that exchange reads:
What is RiceTec’s response to the FECARROZ letter?
- RiceTec believes the bigger issue facing our export partners is one of rice price. Currently, U.S. rice is priced at a premium of nearly $300/MT over Vietnamese rice in the world market.
- If not for hybrid rice, the U.S. rice industry might actually be much smaller than it is today. This is because, in many cases, hybrid rice is the difference between being profitable growing rice and growing another crop.
- Export grain quality is not a hybrid versus non-hybrid variety issue. It is a U.S. rice industry issue as evidenced by the recent industry-sanctioned study on rice quality. Every rice product has unique grain characteristics, and each buyer has unique preferences regarding those grain characteristics and the price that drives their purchase decisions.
What is RiceTec’s perspective on the issue?
- The gap between U.S. and overseas rice grain has narrowed as other exporting countries have improved their quality. Additionally, the entire southern rice industry has faced significant weather-related challenges since 2010, with extremely high nighttime air temperatures across much of the production area.We are optimistic that this year’s cooler weather across the region will lead to overall higher quality for the entire 2013 crop.
How does RiceTec hope this will ‘shake out’ in terms of how hybrids and non-hybrids are handled?
- RiceTec continues to work with the University of Arkansas Rice Processing Program to better understand the best ways to dry and mill hybrid rice, as well as achieve the various desired functional and cooking characteristics. Our goal is to provide the best product for the grower, the processor and, ultimately, the consumer.
- RiceTec is committed to helping its customers -- America’s rice producers -- remain profitable and competitive in a global economy. We’re doing this by producing high-quality products with desirable grain characteristics.
Despite the letter, the Central Americans, says Roberts, continue to have “faith in the U.S. rice industry. They have faith that the U.S. rice farmer can continue to grow the type and quality of rice they want. … They’re simply concerned about securing a standard supply of good-quality, U.S. paddy rice.”
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While that is true, it is worrying that FECARROZ – finger cocked to perhaps flick the first domino in a long string -- is now opting to bypass the usual communication channels and is instead reaching out directly to U.S. rice producers with its message of unhappiness. Read that letter’s next-to-last paragraph again.
So, how best to keep those dominoes from tumbling?
Next up: Measuring rice chalk and giving the customer what they want.