In mid-October, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service(APHIS) received a draft protocol from the Chinese government on requirements for importing U.S. milled rice.  Now in the hands of U.S. mills for study and response, the document is one of the final steps to opening up the Chinese market – perhaps as early as 2013.  

“A number of mills in different states are looking at the draft and talking to determine if this is a protocol they can ship rice under, manage sales and so forth,” says Dwight Roberts, president and CEO of the U.S. Rice Producers Association (USRPA), which has helped spearhead outreach efforts to the Chinese since 2004.

On Wednesday (Oct. 24), “we’ll have a conference with APHIS to discuss the protocol. Mills will provide input and I think that will lead to tweaks of the protocol. Those will go into the response that’ll head back to the Chinese.

“This first draft, from the initial reactions of some of the mills, is a great start. As we get into this, hopefully it won’t be too lengthy of a process before final agreement. I’m enthused about the first draft and the direction we’re going.”

Chinese buyers are eager and ready to deal, says Greg Yielding, head of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, which works in concert with the USRPA. “We just don’t need to be too picky with what their government has proposed. The conditions are pretty straightforward. There doesn’t seem to be much to worry about in the draft.”

Yielding, who has traveled to China repeatedly to make inroads with rice buyers and to conduct taste tests and surveys, says millers he’s spoken with are keen to pick up the new business. “Mills that are interested in selling to the Chinese have told me, ‘Hey, we’ll do this. Most of this is about pests and we know we won’t have any problems with (those) in milled, pre-packaged rice anyway.’

“The Chinese want to buy U.S. rice, are ready to pick it off the shelf, and are willing to pay more for it as long as it’s high-quality. We’re this close to providing that product.

“U.S. rice farmers need that market opened up. Farmers just want to sell their crop. I’m not suggesting we should just sign on and agree to everything in the draft, but we don’t need to hem-haw around and have 50 conference calls and drag things out. Let’s get it done.”

For full coverage of the USRPA/Yielding’s work with the Chinese, see here.

The Chinese draft contains 16 articles. At least 11 deal with keeping rice pests from reaching Chinese shores.

APHIS would say that’s very standard,” says Roberts. “Those that specialize in these types of agreements will recognize anything that needs to be fleshed out a bit more.

“The main thing is we’ve got the protocol. I’m a little surprised that it has moved along so quickly, actually. This is a huge first step and something that will be very good for our industry in the not-too-distant future.”

Among other concerns, the Chinese government is asking that pest traps to be set out around U.S. mills and for the traps to be checked regularly.

“Mills, of course, already have traps set up for pests because they don’t want them in any rice headed to any consumer,” says Yielding. “The Chinese also want some more record-keeping. And if they find pests in a shipment – which they won’t – then they can come back over and check the U.S. mills again. Rice is their major crop and food and it’s understandable that they want to protect it.

“The United States requires certain things of those wanting to sell products and commodities into our country. We’re very particular, for instance, on imported fruit.”