Soliman asked to explain P58-M rotting rice in Subic

By Jess Diaz, The Philippine Star

Posted at Feb 23 2014 12:51 PM | Updated as of Feb 23 2014 08:51 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Congressmen are seeking an explanation from Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman on why her department failed to use P58 million worth of rice, which the Bureau of Customs (BOC) had seized and donated to typhoon victims.

The House committee on good government and public accountability has asked Soliman to attend its next hearing so she could shed light on the rice that is now rotting in containers at the Subic Freeport.

“We want her to tell us why her department failed to obtain the rice from Subic and distribute it to typhoon victims when it was still fit for human consumption,” Pampanga Rep. Oscar Rodriguez, committee chairman, said yesterday.

“It’s sad and unfortunate that a huge shipment of rice is rotting in while we have millions of compatriots who need food and other assistance in areas devastated by calamities, including Super Typhoon Yolanda. This is almost criminal on the part of the negligent officials,” he said.

The rice, shipped from Vietnam, was loaded in 90 20-foot containers, which the Customs office at the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) seized in 2012 after it was wrongly declared as construction materials. It was consigned to Oriental Tradelink Express, Inc. and Masagana Import-Export Inc.

Rep. Rey Umali of Mindoro Oriental, a former Customs deputy commissioner, estimates the shipment to be about 45,000 bags.

He said importers and smugglers would normally fill a 20-foot container up to 25 tons of cargo.

A ton is equivalent to 1,000 kilos or 20 bags of rice at 50 kilos each. This means one container held 500 bags and the 90 vans of seized Vietnam rice brought in through Subic contained 45,000 bags.

In compliance with the Customs and Tariff Code, BOC-SBMA tried to auction the grains, setting a minimum price of P57.9 million.

But after two failed biddings, then Commissioner Ruffy Biazon forfeited the Vietnam rice in favor of the government and donated it to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) on Dec. 26, 2012 for distribution to victims of Typhoon Pablo, which had struck the country early that month.

According to Customs officials, it is the responsibility of the agency to which confiscated goods were donated to obtain and transport these from the port where they are held.

SBMA Chairman Roberto Garcia said Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima called him after Yolanda hit the country in November to ask if the seized Vietnam rice could be used to help typhoon victims.

“So we sent him 16 container vans. But he later told us that he had it subjected to laboratory test and it was found to be no longer fit for human consumption. The remaining rice is still there in Subic, in containers,” he said.

National Food Authority deputy administrator Ludovico Jarina has told the Rodriguez committee that rice “has a shelf life of six months, if property stored.”

He said the Vietnam rice in Subic is definitely no longer fit for human consumption and may not even be good for animals.

The Vietnam rice was one of three rice shipments Customs confiscated in 2012 – two entered the country through Subic and one through the Legazpi City port in Albay. The shipments were worth about P700 million.

The second Subic cargo held 420,000 bags of rice from India. It was consigned to Metro Eastern Trading and was also confiscated because it was not covered by an import permit from the National Food Authority (NFA).

The Indian rice shipment was subsequently sold through auction and Pelayo de Vera of Veramar Rice Mill and Trading of San Rafael, Bulacan won the bidding with an offer of P487.2 million. The BOC set a floor price of P462 million.

The good government committee has subpoenaed the financial statements of De Vera and his rice mill to determine if it had the finances to support its winning bid, and if not, where he obtained financing.