NEW DELHI: Basmati rice exports to the US have plunged because many Indian firms are under an import alert by the US authorities, leading to a detailed scrutiny for pesticide residue in every grain being shipped out. This has raised costs, upset schedules and obstructed sales, prompting exporters to seek government intervention.
In the first quarter of calendar year 2013, exports were down to 19,583 tonne. With 31 Indian rice firms under US FDA import alert amid 100% scrutiny, the rice export lobby feels that the US is employing a virtual zero-tolerance policy on Indian pesticides that have been used around the world for years and raised no health concerns. US diplomatsic officials say they have discovered residues of chemicals not approved for use in the US in Indian basmati rice and such shipments have been rejected.
Indian companies see the US market as a strong branded market which sets benchmark prices and want the government to take up the issue with its US counterpart. “Exporters are very concerned about the US law and policy on the presence of residues of particular pesticides in rice,” said Rajan Sundaresan, president, All India Rice Exporters Association.
He added that without having conducted a risk assessment, the US was raising questions on pesticides that have been tested recently by other WTO members and the Codex Alimentarius (established by FAO and WHO, the agency develops international food standards), leading them to adopt minimum residue limits (MRLs) that are considerably higher than the US limit.
Four pesticides, namely Buprofezin, Carbendazim, Isoprothiolane and Tricyclazole that are commonly used by Indian farmers, have been found to be present at extremely low levels in the shipments, said Sundaresan.
“Many of the US’ trading partners like Japan and the EU and Codex have conducted risk assessments and set MRLs for these pesticides. The levels set by those MRLs do not act as a barrier to trade because the residues are comfortably below them. Meanwhile, the levels of pesticides the US authorities have detected have been far, far below these thresholds,” said Sundaresan. India annually exports 2.5-3 million tonne basmati rice, with Iran and the West Asia the biggest market.
Basmati rice exports from India to the United States have increased from 55,762 tonne in 2009 to a record 104,400 tonne in 2012. “In the previous year, Indian rice exports to the United States hit an all-time record of $140 million. We would like to continue working with Indian exporters,” said a USA diplomatic official in New Delhi.
He added that Indian companies were still shipping rice with the United States Food and Drug Administration – which protects US and foreign consumers from food-borne contaminants – doing 100% testing rather than random sampling as a large number of violations has been reported.
“Till date, residues of eleven pesticides have been detected in imported Indian basmati rice. The eleven chemicals that are unregistered in the United States are tricyclazole, carbendazim, imidacloprid, bifenthrin, buprofezin, isoprothiolane, pirimophos methyl, triazophos, triclosan, difenoconazole, and ethoxyquin. Only carbendazim has an MRL established for rice. The other ten do not. While the three of them, tricyclazole, triclosan, and isoprothiolane, have no internationally standardized MRLs for any food products,” said the US official.
The first Indian shipment to be sent back from the American shore was in May 2011 of Amritsar-based Amar Singh Chawal Wala that sells the Lal Qila brand rice for having tricyclazole level of over 0.1 parts per million (ppm). Currently 90% of the shipments were being rejected owing to the use of tricyclazole manufactured by Dow Chemicals. “We are ageing the rice for 1-2 years to ensure the degradation of the residue. This is not a foolproof method but we have no option,” said the company’s director Arvinder Pal Singh.
According to Singh, with Dow Chemical submitting its safety data report to theEnvironmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US six months ago, Indians were hopeful some headway could be made.
“If it was the real safety issue the world would have noticed and banned the Indian basmati rice. This is a non-tariff barrier placed by the US to negotiate with India for access to US products like dairy in Indian market,” said a leading exporter from the country.