Indonesia gripped by plastic rice scare

Customers checking the quality of rice at a wholesale rice market in east Jakarta last week. One lab test on rice samples collected from a stall in Bekasi showed traces of PVC. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Customers checking the quality of rice at a wholesale rice market in east Jakarta last week. One lab test on rice samples collected from a stall in Bekasi showed traces of PVC. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Officials across the country checking samples; President calls for calm

A SCARE over rice contaminated with plastic grains has gripped Indonesia as officials in provinces from Aceh to South Sulawesi and across populous Java conduct checks on rice samples, prompting President Joko Widodo to call for calm.

"The rice samples are being tested (in the laboratories). So, before the results are out, let's not amplify the issue," he told reporters during a visit to his hometown of Solo over the weekend.

"The most important thing is, what is the root cause of this? We need a thorough check. Is it only in Bekasi or elsewhere? What is the motivation?" he added.

He was referring to rice samples that were collected from a stallholder in Bekasi, a west Java satellite town on the eastern outskirts of Jakarta, and then tested.

One lab test showed traces of the synthetic plastic polymer, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is used to make a wide range of products, including bottles and pipes.

The stallholder had suspected something was amiss when she and her customers suffered an upset stomach and giddiness.

In another case, this time in Medan, North Sumatra, a girl fell ill after she reportedly ate rice that contained the plastic.

Indonesia boasts the world's largest per capita rice consumption at 140kg of rice per person per year.

Although Mr Joko is aiming for self-sufficiency in rice, South- east Asia's largest economy is unable to produce enough of it to feed its 250 million-strong population. It could be forced to consider importing more rice instead.

Indonesia imports rice mainly from Thailand and Vietnam, but following regional scares over rice contaminated with plastic rice believed to be from China, some politicians are now urging the people to consume local rice while the authorities scramble to trace the source of the contamination.

"My message is to love your local products, because if it is from our farmers, you don't need to worry," Agriculture Minister Amran Sulaiman told reporters.

Questions are being raised over how stringent the checks are for imported rice.

In a sign of urgency in tackling the case and stemming widespread panic, Trade Minister Rachmat Gobel held a closed-door meeting yesterday with the police.

Police chief Badrodin Haiti had said he would charge anyone found to have knowingly distributed contaminated rice.

Earlier, Mr Rachmat said he had conveyed his concern to China's deputy commerce minister when they met on Sunday at an Apec-related meeting held in the Philippines.

Yesterday, the Indonesian Parliament also discussed the formation of a special team to oversee the case.

The Home Affairs Ministry has jumped into the fray, going as far as to suggest sabotage.

"The synthetic rice distributor also has a political motive. He or she may be making an attempt at treason or trying to sabotage the government," Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo was quoted as telling Kompas daily on a work trip in Central Java.

In the meantime, rice sellers in a market in east Jakarta told The Straits Times that they have seen sales fall by up to 20 per cent.

"I have not seen some regulars for a few days and I have been telling buyers there is no plastic in our rice," said Mr Didit, 53,

The vendor, who has been selling rice there for the past 18 years, said he was not too worried because there was a similar rice scare three years ago but it died down after a few weeks.

Housewife Suriarti Desi, 37, said she was concerned but would eat rice bought from only the sources she trusted.

In Singapore, a spokesman for the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority told The Straits Times last week that imported rice is regularly inspected and samples are tested to ensure compliance with food safety standards.

"Our sampling tests cover a wide range of food-borne hazards. Thus far, the testing results have been satisfactory. We have not received any feedback on fake rice," the spokesman added.

zubaidah@sph.com.sg