Manila asks fast-food chains to offer less rice

The Philippine government will ask fast-food outlets to offer half portions of rice to encourage customers to eat less of the national staple as Manila scrambles to boost supplies.

"We would like to exercise all efforts at ensuring the Philippines rice stocks continue to be maintained at a manageable level to ensure that the food security of the country will be maintained," Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap told Reuters in a telephone interview on Monday.

"I'm asking fast-food restaurants to give their customers an option to order half a cup of rice because right now if you do a survey of all the fast-food joints you will notice a fraction of them always have excess rice.

"People don't really finish their rice."

The Philippines, one of the world's biggest importers of rice, is struggling to source supplies of up to 1.8 million tonnes this year as prices sky rocket due to rising demand and tight inventories around the globe.

Yap said the Philippines, where rising harvests cannot keep pace with population growth of three babies a minute, was not facing a shortage of its national staple but people should conserve the grain, which is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Fast-food restaurants are popular meeting points for families and office workers in the Philippines and Jollibee Foods Corp, the country's biggest fast-food chain, as well as international rivals McDonalds and KFC serve rice as an accompaniment with their burgers and deep-fried chicken.

If Filipinos could be more prudent with their consumption, rice imports could go down by 37 per cent to 1.17 million tonnes compared to last year's import requirement of 1.87 million tonnes, the Department of Agriculture has estimated.

Manila has failed in three consecutive auctions to secure the full volume of rice it needs and is hoping to tap an emergency regional rice fund to help with a potential shortfall.

Thailand has committed to set aside 15,000 tonnes of rice for the Philippines under the East Asia Emergency Rice Reserve and officials have also contacted Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea.

Results for last week's auction for 550,000 tonnes of rice, which only attracted 355,500 tonnes of bids, are expected this week.

Manila is also looking to re-tender to buy up to 100,000 tonnes of rice from the United States after receiving only one bid last week. It is buying the US rice using $65 million in credit guarantees from the US Agriculture Department.

Last month, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo went outside normal commercial channels to ask the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to guarantee a supply of up to 1.5 million tonnes of rice, signalling rising nervousness about tight supply.

Hanoi, however, said it could only guarantee 1 million tonnes of rice, which already includes a volume of around 700,000 tonnes which Vietnamese traders had already agreed to supply in auctions in December and January.

Vietnam sold nearly 1.4 million tonnes of rice to the Philippines last year.