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USDA downplays rice shortage

| Friday, April 25, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer on Thursday sought to calm the frayed nerves of consumers, saying there was no shortage of rice in the United States even as a major outlet limited sales.

He said the surge in rice prices to record highs at the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), the world's largest grain exchange, could be attributed, in part, to speculation about future rice shortages.

"We don't see any evidence of the lack of availability of rice. There are no supply issues," he said after addressing a conference on agro-terrorism in Kansas City.

"Part of the price issue is speculation because we're so close to capacity ... that if something disrupts it like the weather pattern, then you can start seeing some supply issues.

"But, today, there are no supply issues that we see in the marketplace or in the foreseeable future," he added.

Schafer's remarks were made one day after retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Sam's Club warehouse division said it is limiting sales of several types of rice. A day earlier, Costco Wholesale Corp. said it was seeing increasing demand for items such as rice and flour as customers stock up.

Export curbs by suppliers such as Vietnam, India, Cambodia and Egypt to ensure sufficient domestic supplies have helped to push rice prices to record highs, with values in top exporter Thailand surging to $1,000 a ton.

Fears over shortages have sparked food riots in Africa and toppled the government in Haiti.

Rice prices at the CBOT rose to an all-time high above $25 per hundredweight during Asian trading hours yesterday but tumbled in Chicago trade amid signs that high prices had blunted export demand.

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