Italy's rice producers sounded the alarm Thursday over competition from Asia, saying the national industry was in crisis and consumers were unwittingly buying pesticide-contaminated grains harvested by exploited children.
Italian farmers' association Coldiretti said imports of rice from Asia was driving the price of the home-grown staple into the ground, while lax labelling laws meant families could not trace the origins of products on supermarket shelves.
"Over the last year, the sale price of rice has halved and the number of imports has quadrupled from southeast Asia," said Coldiretti head Roberto Moncalvo, as producers rallied in protest outside the agriculture ministry in Rome.
He said rice grown in southeast Asia was "dangerous, grown using pesticides and by exploiting underage labour".
"One in four packets of rice sold in Italy come from abroad, but the consumer does not know because the origin is not on the label".
The group said Italy was Europe's largest producer of rice and could be "more than self-sufficient" if limited to home-grown grains.
More than 4,200 farms in the Mediterranean country produce 1.6 million tons of rice a year.
"Farmers have to sell three kilos of unrefined rice to pay for a simple coffee because of speculation and swindling which has hit national rice fields and is harming consumers," Coldiretti said in a statement.