Can one person change the eating habits of a nation? It’s possible — if the person in question is Gaby Carbajal, an ambassador for U.S.-grown rice in Mexico, and she has the strong backing of the U.S. rice industry.

For over a decade, Carbajal has been making a concerted effort to increase the consumption of rice in Mexico. Contrary to what many people think, Mexicans are not big on the commodity. Their cuisine has been built around corn as a grain staple in their diet. Rarely is a meal served without the ubiquitous tortilla.

In fact, the amount of rice consumed by the average Mexican citizen is among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere and about the same as an average European’s diet according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). This is in contrast to other countries throughout Central and South America, where per capita rice consumption is among the world’s highest (see chart).

Carbajal is trying to change all that. She’s building a market for rice grown a few hundred miles away, along the southern tier of the United States, as part of promotional activities funded by the USA Rice Federation.

U.S. growers produce just a fraction of the world’s rice supply — about 2 percent — but export half of what they grow, making the United States the world’s fourth-largest rice exporting nation. For rice that isn’t consumed at home, Mexico represents a good market opportunity. It lies within easy reach by truck and has a welcoming trade climate, thanks to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). There are no import duties quotas, or other barriers to rice imports.

All that remains is to create more demand for rice. And that’s where Carbajal comes in.

“The first thing we do is try to excite them about it,” Carbajal said in a recent interview. “I tell them, ‘what if we had a product that is delicious, economical, easy to cook, doesn’t have to be refrigerated, and is equally delicious when prepared in hundreds of different dishes?’

“‘That would be like a miracle food, right? Well, we have one. It’s rice.’”

Rice ambassador

Carbajal is uniquely qualified to be a “rice ambassador.” She was born and raised in Peru, with Spanish as her native language and rice as her native food.

“I cannot imagine a meal without it,” Carbajal says. “For me, rice is a very natural product to promote.”

She has an extensive knowledge of Mexican culture dating to 1992, when she moved there with her husband, then a top trade officer for the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. Carbajal started working for a major international public relations firm and later founded her own company, MexPromos, in Mexico City.

A one-time food stylist, Carbajal also had written a best-selling Spanish cookbook, Pollo Gourmet. It was published in 1984, when the family lived in the Dominican Republic.

To promote the book, Carbajal’s publisher sent her on a press tour across Latin America. The press junket gave her entry into the growing “food culture” of Mexico, and thanks to the media coverage, she became a food celebrity. It counts for a lot that she’s been tested by fire — as anyone who’s ever been thrust under camera lights knows.

Eating habits

Carbajal now parlays her knowledge and influence into promoting rice. It’s not a huge media operation she’s running, but a daily attempt to change tastes and habits, one person at a time. Her approach involves a handful of employees — four event planners and four chefs reporting to her in Mexico City — a network of contacts, daily scheduled events, and lots and lots of rice.

“The Mexican people are not aware that they don’t eat a lot of rice,” Carbajal says. “They have no way of comparing.”

But they do have a fondness for fresh food prepared in simple, attractive ways. So Carbajal literally cooks for them, using a steady stream of new recipes that showcase rice in ways appealing to different market segments. Some 70¬-80 recipes are placed in newspapers and magazines each month.

“Mexico is a country rich in ingredients,” Carbajal enthuses. “It has the most wonderful vegetables, meat and seafood you can imagine.

“We don’t open a can of tomatoes — we start from scratch,” she said. “When they see us preparing rice, and realize how many different recipes they can make, they cannot believe it!”

Carbajal goes on morning TV and popular national cooking shows. She introduces rice as menu specialty items in restaurant and food service promotions. She runs high-energy cooking competitions for student and professional chefs.

Her teams, consisting of chefs, events coordinators, and press relations specialists, make scheduled appearances in schools and grocery stores. At the street festivals that are so much a part of Mexican life, they literally take rice to the street with cooking demonstrations and taste sampling.

Targeting messaging

“Every activity is directed to a specific target,” Carbajal said, “and the message is specific to that audience.” With school kids, she talks about the nutritional benefits of rice and the importance of eating healthy foods, providing handouts to share with their mothers. After sampling rice in simple recipes like rice pudding, or rice with vegetables, many children are convinced they like it.

In-store promotions are aimed at housewives “Our message is to ‘stretch your budget with rice,’” Carbajal says. “We show them how to cook it properly, all the recipes they can make, and that it’s economical.” There are also 80 to 100 consumer education seminars each year directed towards women in Mexico City, Monterrey and Puebla. In addition, the Mexican government’s leading social service agency has asked Carbajal to give 20-30 cooking demonstrations each year aimed at modest income women.

There are also relationships with Mexico’s numerous culinary schools — 20 in Mexico City alone — and growing food service industry. “When we work with student chefs, our message is to ‘increase your profits with rice,’” Carbajal continues. “For them, it’s a business. So we teach them how rice can be profitable in food service and how they aren’t taking full advantage of it.”

And then there are the festivals. USA Rice Federation is a major presence at five of Mexico’s leading regional food festivals and also well-known paella festivals held in Queretaro, Acapulco, Monterrey and Mexico City, each year. Carbajal’s teams man exhibit booths and she runs special events, like paella competitions. More recently, she’s been organizing jambalaya contests.

Photographs and videos of many events are then pedaled as soft news and entertainment to local media outlets and sometimes have a third life when they’re featured on cooking shows and programs — including U.S. Spanish-language programs reaching an estimated 15 million viewers.

Carbajal is now reaching an estimated 8 to 10 million households each week on one cable television show alone. The four glossy special-edition food magazines she sponsors each year — each containing rice recipes aimed at a different market segment — sell out in print runs of several hundred thousand. The money goes to the publishers — Carbajal’s costs are limited to advance orders of about 5,000 copies — but the influence is hers to keep.

TOKS, a popular restaurant chain, has added a rice category to its menu after an introductory promotion assisted by Carbajal. “We saw that rice added another great menu option for our customers,” said Gustavo Perez, the chain’s national marketing manager. TOKS serves 2 million customers each month at its 70 stores nationwide, and plans to open in 200 more locations.

Market growth

These promotional activities are made possible with funding from the USA Rice Federation and matching funds from the Foreign Agricultural Service’s market development program for use in increasing export sales of U.S. agricultural products.

“Our members strongly support the Mexico program,” says Jody Falletta-Carman, regional director in charge of Latin America and Caribbean, for the USA Rice Federation. She points out that rice industry members have for many years taken active roles in directing the program and providing funding. Rice brands active in Mexico have also invested heavily, Falletta-Carman says.

“We took a group of farmers there in January and they agreed that this is one of our most successful programs. That’s in part due to her [Carbajal’s] creativity and her passion,” she says.

And the programs are working. Mexican rice consumption has grown by 20 percent in the last five years, and U.S. rice sales to Mexico have doubled in the last seven years, according to FAS statistics.

Mexico is now the leading importer of U.S. rice, purchasing 828,000 metric tons worth $242 million — or 17 percent of U.S. exports — in 2007. The next biggest export markets are far behind, with Japan, at $160 million per year, and Canada at $121 billion. And 2008 is poised to be another record year. U.S. rice exports to Mexico reached a record 568,425 metric tons (MT) during the first six months 2008, an increase of 29 percent from the same period in 2007. The value of these exports is up 42.5 percent — to a record $204 million (FOB) according to FAS. If the trend continues, U.S. rice exports to Mexico could reach more than 1.17 million metric tons in 2008.

Falletta-Carman thinks the USA Rice Federation’s Mexico market-building activities might be good enough to constitute an industry “best practice.” The authors of a 2006 evaluation report recommend no shift in course. “We consider the program successful in moving rice consumption forward,” the report said.

Forecasters predict steady continued growth of this export market based on several factors. For one thing, Mexico’s 108 million population, at one-third the size of the United States, is young and growing. Thirty percent of the population is age 15 or younger, with 75 percent living in urban areas reached by major media markets.

Mexico still consumes rice at half the rate of the United States — 29 pounds per capita compared with Mexico’s 14 pounds — and far below that of some other Latin American countries. But 75 percent of that rice is imported with 95 percent coming from the United States, and agricultural experts say native production is unlikely to grow. The country’s climate and terrain aren’t conducive to rice cultivation and growers there favor higher value crops, like fresh fruits and vegetables for U.S. consumers.

All this means Mexico continues to be a wide-open market for U.S. rice growers, one limited only by demand. The key to success remains increasing per-capita consumption in Mexico, Falletta-Carman says. “The more rice Mexicans eat, the more U.S. rice sales will grow.”

Carbajal has also received a vote of confidence from the Federation’s clients on the Mexican side — the importers, millers and food processors that prepare, package and sell U.S. rice for Mexican consumption. So impressed are they with her success that they provide her with a steady supply of free rice for promotional use.

“I’m perfectly willing to pay for it,” Carbajal says. But no one’s asking.