US retailers ration sales of rice

April 24, 2008

The global food crisis reached the United States yesterday as big retailers began to ration sales of rice in response to bulk purchases by customers alarmed by rocketing prices of staples.

Wal-Mart’s cash and carry division, Sam’s Club, announced it would sell a maximum of four bags of rice per person to prevent supplies from running short. Its decision followed sporadic caps placed on purchases of rice and flour by some store managers at a rival bulk chain, Costco, in parts of California.

The world price of rice has risen 68% since the start of 2008, but in some US shops the price has doubled in weeks.

“We are limiting the sale of Jasmine, Basmati and Long Grain White Rices to four bags per member visit,” Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart, says in a statement cited by Fox Business News. “This is effective immediately in all of our U.S. clubs, where quantity restrictions are allowed by law.”

A sign above the rice at one of the wholesale club’s stores said: “Due to the limited availability of rice, we are limiting rice purchases based on your prior purchasing history.”

The U.N.’s World Food Program blames a “silent tsunami” of global hunger on the rising price of food.

The price of staple foods has been rising at an accelerating rate across the world, driven by what the United Nations has called a “perfect storm” of rising demand from developing countries such as China and India, the impact of climate change and policy responses by governments.

Since the beginning of the year, rice-producing countries including China, India, Vietnam and Egypt have imposed limits on exports to keep domestic prices down. This week, a top World Bank official predicted that Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, might follow in restricting shipments.

The EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, yesterday called on the World Trade Organisation to put pressure on food-producing countries to maintain exports. “If we restrict trade, we’re simply going to add food scarcity to the already large problems of food shortages that exist in different countries,” he told Reuters news agency.

The director of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Jacques Diouf, said the crisis had been building for decades. “The situation we are in is the result of inappropriate policies over the past 20 years,” Diouf told journalists in Paris, pointing to a halving of aid to agriculture in developing countries between 1990 and 2000, while the industrialised world maintained generous farm subsidies.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez yesterday announced a $100m “food security fund”, at a regional summit to agree policy as the crisis spreads instability across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Looting and riots in Haiti left at least six dead and forced the resignation of the prime minister this month, leaving the hemisphere’s poorest country tense and edgy. In Guyana an 80% rise in the price of rice and 50% in the cost of chicken triggered protests and a strike by sugarcane workers. The government promised to issue seeds and urged people to cultivate idle land. Surinam set up an emergency cabinet committee to seek ways to dampen food prices.



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