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Haiti: Nutritional value of World Food Program rice in question

#Articles & Analysis
December 2008



The British solidarity organization, the Haiti Support Group, today wrote to Josette Sheeran, the Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), requesting information about the type of rice that the organization is distributing in Haiti.

The Haiti Support Group is concerned about the nutritional content of the rice that the WFP is distributing to hundreds of thousands of hungry and starving Haitians. In particular, the organization is seeking reassurance that the WFP is not distributing imported rice that has undergone the usual commercial milling process, thereby considerably reducing the rice’s mineral, vitamin, and fibre content.

The letter states that most mass-produced rice produced in developed countries undergoes a milling process stripping the rice grains of their hulks and then polishing and bleaching to make the grains more appealing to the consumer’s eye. Because this milling process considerably reduces the nutritional content of the rice, it is then usual to artificially ‘enrich’ the rice. This enriching is a post-milling process of adding nutrients by coating the exterior of the rice grain with a nutrient mixture.

In most developed countries it is normal to cook this enriched rice straight from the packet, without washing the grains first, and thus the rice that is consumed has a good nutritional content. However, as the Haiti Support Group letter points out, in Haiti, as in many developing countries, the cultural norm is to thoroughly wash and rinse rice before cooking.

The letter continues: “If commercially-milled and artificially-enriched rice is being distributed by the WFP in Haiti, and if, as is likely, it is being thoroughly washed and rinsed by the recipients before cooking, it will have next to no nutritional value.”

The Haiti Support Group’s Charles Arthur said, “It is very important to know what sort of rice the WFP is handing out to hungry people in Haiti. We know that it distributes a variety of foodstuffs – beans, corn soy blend, and vegetable oil – but it also distributes a massive amount of imported rice. Over six months, up to the end of April 2009, the WFP plans to distribute nearly 15,000 metric tons of cereals – mostly rice – to around 800,000 victims of the recent floods in Haiti.”

Arthur continues, “We know this rice is imported from outside Haiti. We understand that a large quantity of it is donated to the WFP by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and that the WFP itself has, in the recent past, procured rice for Haiti from US companies such as the Archer Daniels Midland Company, one of the largest agricultural processors in the world. We are worried that this is ‘stripped’ and enriched rice, and that – unbeknown to the Haitian recipients – if it is to provide any nourishment, it should not be rinsed before cooking.”

The Haiti Support Group (HSG) has contacted a number of the international non-governmental organizations that are currently assisting the WFP with its emergency food distribution programs in Haiti. The HSG’s Arthur said, ” One of the responses set off alarm bells for us – the project coordinator of one international NGO told us that they were sure that the WFP rice that they were distributing to flood victims was “both bleached and enriched”, and that they would not personally eat it themselves!”

Arthur added, “The WFP is spending millions of dollars purchasing rice in foreign countries and then transporting it to Haiti. I think it is a matter of public concern to ascertain whether this rice has any significant nutritional value or whether – as some have opined – it would be just as good to eat boiled cardboard!”

“This issue is all the more important as we have recently discovered that, contrary to many news reports about the complete collapse of the Haitian rice sector, there are in fact rice farmers cooperatives in Haiti which have had, and still have, surplus rice for sale in the months since the hurricanes disaster of August and September. Haitian rice farmers’ cooperatives produce rice that undergoes a very basic milling process and therefore it has a much higher nutritional value than commercially-milled, imported rice.”

The letter is being sent as concerns mount about the extent of the severe malnutrition problem in many parts of Haiti, and just days after thousands of peasant farmers demonstrated in the capital, Port-au-Prince, to demand more support for local agricultural production.

Sent by the Haiti Support Group – A British solidarity organization supporting the Haitian people’s struggle for participatory democracy, human rights and equitable development –

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