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UPDATE 1-Manila asks fast-food chains to offer less rice

(Adds customer comments)

MANILA, March 17 (Reuters) - The Philippine government, struggling to secure rice on world markets at skyrocketing prices, wants people to waste less of the national staple.

“I’m asking fast-food restaurants to give their customers an option to order half a cup of rice because right now if you do a survey of all the fast-food joints you will notice a fraction of them always have excess rice,” Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said on Monday.

“People don’t really finish their rice,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview, saying the country would “exercise all efforts” to ensure food security.

The Philippines, one of the world’s biggest importers of rice, is struggling to source supplies of up to 1.8 million tonnes this year as prices climb due to rising demand and tight inventories around the globe.

In a branch of Jollibee JFC.PS, the country's largest fast-food chain, some customers were sceptical about shrinking portions.

“Yeah, I’d order half a cup and then I’d order an extra half,” laughed Ray Tating, an office worker who was tucking into a late lunch of fried chicken and rice.

“Men would order 4 half cups,” she added.

Rice is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Philippines and Jollibee as well as international rivals McDonalds MCD.N and KFC YUM.N serve the grain as an accompaniment to burgers and deep-fried chicken.

Fast-food outlets are popular meeting places in the Philippines and it’s not unusual for office employees to have their lunches there every day.

The Philippines is trying to boost local production but rising rice harvests cannot keep pace with population growth of three babies a minute.

In Vietnam, the main supplier to the Philippines, rice prices have risen a fifth since the start of the year and over 60 percent since the same time in 2007.

LEFTOVERS

If Filipinos could be more prudent with their consumption, rice imports could go down by 37 percent to 1.17 million tonnes compared to last year’s import requirement of 1.87 million tonnes, the Department of Agriculture has estimated.

Manila has failed in three consecutive auctions to secure the full volume of rice it needs and is hoping to tap an emergency regional rice fund to help with a potential shortfall.

Thailand has committed to set aside 15,000 tonnes of rice for the Philippines under the East Asia Emergency Rice Reserve and officials have also contacted Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea.

Results for last week’s auction for 550,000 tonnes of rice, which only attracted 355,500 tonnes of bids, are expected this week.

Manila is also looking to re-tender to buy up to 100,000 tonnes of rice from the United States after receiving only one bid last week. It is buying the U.S. rice using $65 million in credit guarantees from the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Last month, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo went outside normal commercial channels to ask the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to guarantee a supply of up to 1.5 million tonnes of rice, signalling rising nervousness about tight supply.

Hanoi, however, said it could only guarantee 1 million tonnes of rice, which already includes a volume of around 700,000 tonnes which Vietnamese traders had already agreed to supply in auctions in December and January.

Vietnam sold nearly 1.4 million tonnes of rice to the Philippines last year. (Reporting by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by Michael Urquhart)

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