Yingluck tastes rice to dispel rumours

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (C) and other officials eat rice in front of cameras during their visit to Khao C.P. Co. Ltd rice factory in Ayutthaya July 18, 2013.

THAILAND - Struggling to deal with a massive stockpile of rice, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra moved to nip another crisis in the bud by sampling some before reporters and photographers.

She did so in the light of rumours that some rice has been tainted by a fumigant.

For Thailand, rice is a politically strategic and highly symbolic commodity.

Thus, the Premier made the high-profile tour of the high-tech processing plant near the historic city of Ayuthaya, where the CP Trading Group puts out 1.08 million tonnes of rice every year, about half of which is Hom Mali or jasmine rice.

Just as her elder brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, once ate a chicken lunch in front of reporters to show that you could not get bird flu from cooked chicken, so Ms Yingluck sampled rice to dispel fears of tainted grain.

Late last week, a television host, Mr Sutthiphong Thammawuthi, passed on unverified information via his Facebook page that the top Thai rice brand, Royal Umbrella jasmine rice, produced by CP Trading Group, and another, Benjarong, were tainted with toxic residue from a fumigant.

Mr Sutthiphong - facing a criminal lawsuit from the company - subsequently apologised.

According to a news report, the company's lawyers withdrew the lawsuit on Thursday, after his written apology and a pledge to publicise quality control measures for rice in his television programme.

The episode brought to a head weeks of rumours that about 18 million tonnes of government rice stocks were being treated with chemicals to preserve them properly.

Of Ms Yingluck's tour of the plant, her secretary-general, Mr Suranand Vejjajiva, said: "This is to restore confidence; we don't want these rumours to spread."

CP Trading Group said its quality control measures were the best in the world and if any fumigation had been carried out before the rice arrived at the facility, it was standard practice and not out of line with international norms.

"This issue is common in many countries with regard to commodities like grains, it is standard," said Mr Prasit Damrongchietanon, vice-chairman and chief executive of the company.

"We are very serious about this - not only keeping up to standards but beyond standards. We don't see rice just as grain, we see it as food."

Meanwhile, the government announced it is selling 200,763 tonnes of broken white rice and 152,837 tonnes of 5per cent broken white rice from its stockpiles, inviting bidders to submit their offers by July 26.

"We have talked to the exporters and the feedback is good that they will bid," Deputy Commerce Minister Yanyong Phuangrach told The Straits Times.

Since October 2011, the government has been buying rice from farmers at much higher prices than prevailing world prices in a scheme to boost their incomes.

But economists are calling it a financial disaster.