CALIF. RICE GROWERS GEARING UP FOR FIRST SHIPMENTS TO JAPAN

CALIF. RICE GROWERS GEARING UP FOR FIRST SHIPMENTS TO JAPAN

Now that Japan has decided to buy some U.S. rice, domestic suppliers must make sure it gets there.

To do so, they are working with a distributor to coordinate and arrange shipments, as well as with a three-tiered inspection procedure required by the Japanese government."The (Japanese) Food Agency obviously intends to, and wants to, import a substantial amount of rice, both from Australia and California," said Ralph Newman, president of the Farmers' Rice Cooperative, a Sacramento group representing some 1,300 growers.

"I've been working with them for more than a month. I guess it would be fair to say that Japan doesn't have an infrastructure to import rice," he said.

Unseasonably wet and cold summer weather led Japan into an estimated 500,000 metric-ton shortfall this year and forced Tokyo to approve imports for the first time since 150,000 tons were brought in from South Korea in 1984.

Initially, U.S. growers agreed Japan would most likely import rice only

from its Asian neighbors, such as Thailand, China, Vietnam and possibly South Korea.

Yet California producers benefitted from Japanese consumers' preference for a strain called Japonica, a higher grain rice that cooks up sticky.

Also, Tokyo was looking to score some diplomatic points with Washington and decided to buy an initial 14,000 tons of U.S. rice with more purchases to follow.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy has said Japan could import 300,000 to 500,000 tons of U.S. rice in the coming year.

A long-time player in Asia, the Connell Co. of Westfield, N.J., is overseeing the export activities of several California rice producers.

Connell, which is reportedly under contract to the growers and a Japanese trading company, is taking rice from seven California suppliers, then helping to coordinate shipments to Japan.

An important obstacle to overcome is Tokyo's requirements for stringent inspection of the rice before it reaches Japan's shores. The growers are working to design a comprehensive testing system to comply with requirements of Japan's health agency, which has designated the Overseas Merchandise Inspection Corp. to handle the task.

Currently, it is expected that the rice will be examined at three stages: once at the mill, once at the port and again on board ship. The inspection process is expected to add between seven and 10 days to the normal shipping

procedure.

The actual shipments themselves are being handled by the Japanese and NYK Line (North America) Inc.

"This is all being arranged in Tokyo. We have nothing to do with the shipping," said Grover Connell, head of the Connell Co.

In an unusual twist, Tokyo is requiring that the first 14,000-plus tons of rice be transported by refrigerated containers. Outbound vessels are expected to be loaded during the latter half of November.

Representatives of NYK were not available for comment.

The Port of Sacramento, meanwhile, is licking its chops at the prospect of more business, although "in this case, all we are providing is the facility," said marketing manager Bob Watson.

"We don't have to gear up. We can easily handle this cargo," he said. ''In the past, we have handled as much as 1 million tons through here in

bulk and bags. If they get all they're talking about, it will probably be half of that."