Last November, frustrated with the quality of U.S. rice they were importing, leaders in the Central American rice industry wanted to test every variety and hybrid grown in the United States. Rice breeders from Mid-South universities provided over 20 varieties for those tests. The results only hardened the resolve of the members of the Central America Rice Federation, known as FECARROZ.
Chalk is the key concern of the Central Americans, who have a different standard for quantifying the problem than the United States, says Jonathan Hobbs. Hobbs, with Russell Marine Group  -- “a single source for supervision, inspection, freight booking/forwarding, testing and logistical coordination,” according to company literature -- has seen the quality issues developing from close up. The company, he says, “helped develop the standard with the Nicaraguans. We were basically fielding their complaints and trying to react to them and come up with exactly what they wanted as far as quality. They traveled here and we went to Nicaragua. After three or four sit-downs, we believe it was finally nailed down. It was kind of a moving target because they have never come back and said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how we want it.’”
Hobbs explains that the USDA chalk standard “is if half, or more, of the kernel is chalky then it is considered to be ‘chalk.’ That’s vague but the USDA interprets that to be a volume measurement. The kernel must actually be cut and a cross-section checked.
“The thing is, a lot of kernels appear chalky when you don’t cut them. That’s why the Central Americans have interpreted that to mean ‘if any of the kernel is chalky’ then it should be considered chalky. That means they’re not concerned with the volume as much as the surface area and a visual check.”
Queried on chalk and the milling process in Central America, Hobbs says that many times settings are changed “on the SORTEX  machine. That distinguishes the chalky kernels from the acceptable ones to a degree -- just like it would normally find a kernel of corn and kick it out. The machine kicks out the chalky kernels in the same way but it slows down their production.
“At the same time, when you SORTEX something out of the rice it also takes some good kernels with it. It takes a picture of the kernels, finds one that doesn’t belong and then hits it with a puff of air to move it out. But to get rid of that bad kernel you might have six good kernels that come out with it.”
That can lead to waste. “They can take the bags of SORTEX material and run it back through,” says Hobbs. “But that’s a game of diminishing returns because it takes money and downtime to do that.”
For many years, Central American mills have marketed U.S. rice alongside locally-grown rice and South American rice in the same grocery stores. “Until recently, they’ve always been able to charge a premium price for U.S. rice because the quality has been outstanding,” says Hobbs.
“Now, though, when you look at U.S. rice alongside rice grown in Paraguay and Brazil, the U.S. rice is chalkier and dingier. And they still are trying to justify the higher price. They don’t want to lose that brand recognition that they’ve built for decades. That’s the dilemma the millers there face as far as the appearance of the rice.”
Hobbs agrees that chalky hybrids are “where a lot of blame is going. Research has shown that hybrids are more susceptible to having chalky kernels just by their nature. If you have a hot summer with hot nights, they’re hit with more chalk than conventional varieties.”
At the same time, “a lot of this has to do with growing conditions,” Hobbs says. “We’ve been in a really hot spell over the last few years and it’s caused some quality concerns regardless of variety.”
Incentives to change
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?