Coronavirus: don’t hoard rice in panic as ample supply is available in Hong Kong, importer says

Denise Tsang

Anthony Lam Sai-ho, a rice importer and member of the Trade and Industry Department’s Customer Liaison Group for Rice, has a message for Hongkongers who have swept staple goods off supermarket shelves recently – do not panic.

While residents had seen rice, toilet rolls, instant noodles and even sanitary pads disappear faster than they could be restocked amid the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus that causes Covid-19, ample supply was available in Hong Kong, he said.

Speaking to the Post, Lam said the government’s rice reserve plus the industry’s own stockpile would be sufficient to meet the city’s demand for more than a month.

But even if Hong Kong needs urgent shipments, rice imports could be made within 10 days or less as the staple is largely sourced from Southeast Asia.

“So, don’t panic,” he said on Wednesday. “The panic shopping happened at the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

As of Friday, Hong Kong had 56 confirmed infections, with one fatality. The death toll across the border, meanwhile, was more than 1,500.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said repeatedly in the past week that Hong Kong had sufficient rice to meet demands and urged the public not hoard the commodity in panic.

Hong Kong imported 299,500 tonnes of rice in 2019. Photo: May Tse

She said cross-border goods delivery remained unchanged even though the government closed all but three of the 12 checkpoints – the Hong Kong International Airport, Shenzhen Bay Port, and Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge – to reduce public health risks.

Anthony Lam, who runs a factory in Hong Kong’s Tsing Yi area that processes imported rice for local consumption, said the city’s 229 importers were required to set aside 17 per cent of their monthly import as a reserve.

The reserve stood at 13,000 tonnes as of the end of January, enough to meet slightly more than 15 days’ demand.

Panic buying shows no sign of ending amid coronavirus outbreak

That is in addition to the estimated stockpile of 14,000 tonnes still in the hands of importers on January 31, sufficient for more than two weeks’ consumption.

“This means altogether the supply is sufficient for more than a month’s consumption,” Lam said, adding that the first quarter of the year was also harvest season.

Hong Kong imported 299,500 tonnes of rice in 2019. In 2018, it was 308,400 tonnes.

Thailand and Vietnam were the biggest suppliers of the staple, meeting 82 per cent of the city’s needs last year. China was the third-largest supplier, at 7.7 per cent.

Rice importer Anthony Lam says the government’s rice reserve and industry’s own stockpile were enough to meet city’s demand for more than a month. Photo: May Tse

Still, none of the above stopped shoppers from inundating supermarkets in search of the commodity, and supermarkets could not cope with the sudden surge in demand despite having stock available to them.

“Logistics arrangements can’t catch up with the pace of the sales,” he explained.

Hong Kong’s key supermarket chains AS Watson, which runs ParknShop, and Dairy Farm International, which runs Wellcome, said they had enough stock and had been replenishing shelves frequently.

Consumer watchdog Consumer Council, meanwhile, took to social media on Thursday to urge shoppers not to hoard tissue rolls, adding that the commodity must be stored in a dry and ventilated space. It specifically warned consumers that tissue paper should not be stored in bathrooms, where humidity is higher and germs often thrive.

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