Fake rice in the Philippines?

The initial results are disturbing but-it must be emphasised-inconclusive. More tests are required before the Food Development Center (FDC) of the National Food Authority can say categorically that suspect rice being sold in Davao City is synthetic-that is, fake rice. But because the NFA has already fielded more than 20 complaints from different parts of the country about possibly fake rice, and because grains mixed with "plastic" may lead to serious health problems, it is only right that the appropriate authorities investigate the matter with dispatch.

Rice is not only the country's staple food; it is, preeminently, a political commodity. That is to say, it is quite literally a gut issue, and can make or break political fortunes. To this unchanging reality, the "synthetic rice" controversy adds another complication: Persistent reports assert that the fake rice has been smuggled in from China. The government needs to identify the source of the suspect rice as soon as possible; will Chinese authorities help speed up the process of identification?

This and other intriguing questions may be raised at a hearing this week of the Senate committee on food and agriculture. But the fundamental question is simpler: Is fake rice in fact being sold in the country?

According to the FDC, the sample taken from Davao City was found to be "contaminated with dibutyl phthalate or DBP, a raw material for making flexible plastic products." That is disturbing in itself; DBP "is used in the manufacture of various products, including food-containing items like plastic wraps and lunch boxes." But the sample was too small for the NFA to reach a definite conclusion. More tests are needed, with bigger samples (more than a kilo of rice grains per sample), before any scientifically valid conclusion can be reached.

Now that President Aquino has ordered both the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of Justice to investigate the issue, we expect the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation to move speedily: to isolate the sources of the allegedly synthetic rice, to determine the areas where it has been sold, not least to obtain adequately sized samples for immediate laboratory testing.

The possibility now exists that with two law enforcement investigations launched, a Senate hearing in the works, and a hearing in the House of Representatives getting underway, too, we may all get the wrong signal and reach premature conclusions. It is easy enough for political or election-related considerations to drive the food-security aspect out of the picture. Herewith, two reminders:

We should not raise false alarms. Former senator Francis Pangilinan, now presidential assistant for food security and agricultural modernization, has issued a statement saying he had been "informed that, for harmful effects to be felt, one has to be ingesting DBP every day for at least three months." This is reassuring, but-in this day and age-we need the source of that information, presumably a scientist, to inform the public himself, or herself. The government can make that person available today and for the next several days to belabour the point.

At the same time, we should not create a false sense of complacency. We realise that a sceptical public may find the very notion of eating raw material for plastic products, even if just once, to be sickening. It is incumbent on the PNP and the NBI to determine as soon as possible when the suspect rice first landed in the country, and how much of it has actually been sold.

And if the suspect rice is established to be systematically contaminated (plastic extenders have been known to be added to food products to lower costs of production in a loosely regulated or low-standard economy), then the police and the NBI must take the necessary next step: File the appropriate charges against those who brought the fake rice into the country and send them to a real jail.