The government's rice pledging scheme appears to have created a new worry for consumers.
A worker unloads sacks of rice on a conveyor belt for storage at a miller’s warehouse in Ayutthaya province. PHRAKRIT JUNTAWONG
Besides concerns over whether the government can manage its huge rice stockpile to prevent any severe impact on the country's budget, many people now wonder if is it safe to eat rice that has been kept in warehouses for years.
Their worries will likely increase after Dr Banchob Junhasavasdikul questioned the quality of rice and whether it had become rotten and mouldy.
In an interview with Isranews, the founder of the Balavi Natural Medicine Center said he believes many consumers are eating fungal or mouldy rice that can be poisonous and increase the risk of cancer.
The pledging scheme has reduced the competitiveness of Thai rice exports, so the government is selling the grain locally at cheap prices, he said.
Dr Banchob said fungal rice has a bad smell after cooking. He suggests consumers switch to broken rice, as it is easier to detect green rice pieces that have deteriorated.
Medical Sciences Department officials do not examine the quality of rice in the market, as they do not wish to irritate the government, he said.
One trader said Dr Banchob's warning is not biased but rather something the government should accept and address.
Since the government has insufficient numbers of officials to examine all the rice, which is mostly stored in the warehouses of millers, no one can guarantee the safety of the grain.
The pledging scheme has encouraged farmers to grow rice and sell it to the government at high prices. It is estimated the state now holds more than 18 million tonnes of milled rice.
"It's possible the rice is being kept improperly," the trader said.
As the pledging price is attractive at 15,000 baht a tonne, 40% higher than the market price when the programme started in October 2011, quick-harvest or early-maturing rice was planted widely. The rain-fed rice varieties normally contain high moisture.
A Rice Department study says freshly harvested paddy generally has high moisture content of about 25%. Farmers use sunlight and wind to dry paddy and lower the moisture level to 12-14%. Some millers use dryers to dry up the paddy before milling.
For milled rice, several types of storage rooms have been used depending on the size of the investment, but they must have a low temperature and humidity.
Santi Boonsiro, the manager of SGS Agricultural Services' grain department, said if the state pledges paddy in good condition with no more than 14% moisture and keeps milled rice at warehouses with efficient air flow and ventilation, then it will keep grain quality at an acceptable level.
He said fumigation is a standard practice to kill insects for either domestic consumption or export.
The chemical used to fumigate rice is phosphine, a substance promoted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to replace the use of methyl bromide, a more hazardous chemical.
"After 10 days of fumigation, our technicians will return to the site for degassing, and the process will help to reduce residue," said Mr Santi.
Normally, the residue from phosphine gradually lowers after 7-10 days of fumigation. SGS's laboratory tests have shown minimal residue that is not harmful to humans.
Mr Santi is not concerned about the quality of rice for exports, as most exporters have proper equipment for polishing and cleaning the grain before loading.
He suggests consumers wash rice with water two or three times before cooking.
SGS is among 18 surveyors selected by the Commerce Ministry to inspect and improve the quality of pledged rice from its first day in the warehouse until export.
Wiboonlasana Ruamraksa, director-general of the Internal Trade Department, said surveyors are representatives of the government, and she is confident they complete their task with high standards.
Inspection by the Food and Drug Administration is a requirement for rice sold locally.
"We've heard about rotten rice many times, but no one has provided a specific location where it was found," Ms Wiboonlasana said.
The government has set aside 40-50 billion baht for rice storage and quality improvement for the scheme since 2011.
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Writer: Walailak Keeratipipatpong & Phusadee Arunmas