Japan tries to halt rice panic

TOKYO (Reuter) - Japan's Farm Minister toured shops in Tokyo yesterday to try to end panic buying of domestic rice and persuade shoppers that imports are palatable.

To prove that long-grain Thai rice, the most unpopular imported brand, can be tasty, Eijiro Hata sampled some at a supermarket and gave it a half- hearted endorsement. 'It wasn't as bad as I thought,' he said. 'If you try various methods, it can be tasty in its own way.' Japanese dislike it because of its dryness and smell.

Japan, which for years banned foreign rice, was forced to allow imports after a poor harvest last year. But shoppers, suspicious of foreign grains, have gone on a buying spree, with some queuing for up to two hours for the local variety.

To stop the rush the Food Agency announced it would ban retail sales of pure domestic rice, stipulating that Japanese brands be mixed with imports. This has disgusted consumers even more. Some are turning their backs on rice altogether and choosing bread and pasta.