Is rice the new 'milk powder' for Hong Kong/China cross-border tensions?

Buy too much rice in Hong Kong and 'you could end up in jail', Chinese media warn tourists in wake of Guangzhou cadmium scandal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2013, 1:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2013, 6:26pm

Mainland traders beware, purchasing too much rice in Hong Kong could land you in jail for breaking export restrictions, according to a tongue-in-cheek editorial in a Guangzhou newspaper, which made reference to the two-tin export limit on milk powder.

Fears about rice becoming the next scarce resource began spreading on the mainland after cadmium was found in half of the rice products in Guangzhou last week. 

The Southern Metropolis Daily said that rice would be the next "food issue" and that its reporters had been seeing Hong Kong supermarkets offer "discounted" rice to target mainland consumers and cash in on the panic. 

Local supermarkets have denied the report and have dismissed concerns over any increased demand for rice.

Nevertheless, the news stoked concerns amongst Hongkongers and mainlanders alike that parallel goods traders would buy up more of the staple food if more toxic rice was found on the mainland.

A years-long row over baby formula has already soured cross-border relations, prompting Hong Kong to introduce a two-tin limit on milk powder exports in March. The ban was aimed at combating parallel trading and safeguarding supplies of formula for local parents.

However, the point of contention according to the editorial, is that under Chapter 296A of the Reserved Commodities Ordinance, any export of a reserved commodity not used for personal consumption or as gifts and exceeding 15kg will require an export licence.

Rice is the only commodity protected under the Reserve Commodities Ordinance, which has been in place since the 1950s.

So whether Hong Kong ever face a shortage of rice, the answer is most likely no. 

Under current regulations, the government applies controls to ensure a stable supply and to keep a reserve stock sufficient to feed the public for 15 days in the event of an emergency or shortages. As of the fourth quarter last year, Hong Kong has kept at least 12,300 tonnes of rice in reserves

In 2008, melamine-tainted milk powder affected an estimated 300,000 people on the mainland and hospitalised 50,000 babies, six of whom were eventually killed. Until the cadmium-tainted rice scandal reaches a health panic of this scale, Hong Kong’s rice stocks should be in good shape.