TRADERS may have to open their warehouses for inspection and face charges of economic sabotage if they are found hoarding rice, Secretary to the Cabinet Leoncio Evasco Jr. said on Monday, as he announced the National Food Authority (NFA) Council’s approval of the importation of 250,000 metric tons (MT) of rice.

In a news conference in Malacañang, Evasco, chairman of the NFA Council, instructed the NFA to “proactively monitor” and inspect warehouses of “private traders” and called for the prosecution of those found hoarding stocks of the staple.

“Criminal offense talaga `yan pag mag-hoarding ka (Hoarding is really a criminal offense). That’s economic sabotage. Can you sleep at night when a lot people don’t have anything to buy and yet you’re hoarding and keeping so much?” Evasco said.

“There is really a need to be very, very proactive on the part of NFA to look into the bodegas, warehouses managed and run by private traders, kasi tinatago (because they might be hoarding [rice])...(The NFA) should monitor kasi part iyan ng trabaho nila (because that’s part of their job). If they (rice traders) are found to be hoarding, [we will] prosecute, arrest [them],” he added.

Evasco issued the warning amid reports of a looming rice shortage because of the dwindling supply of government-subsidized rice in the country.

Evasco said the NFA Council, in a meeting held earlier Monday, agreed to approve the standby authority to import 250,000 metric tons.

This, he said, after President Rodrigo Duterte gave him a “verbal” instruction to activate the standby authority subject to the NFA Council’s “assessment on timing and mode of procurement.”

Evasco said the importation would be done after the harvest season. The government projects production of 4.9 million metric tons of palay, equivalent to 3.6 million metric tons of milled rice.

“The standby authority to import 250,000 MT is approved and considering the timing of the harvest season, the importation should arrive after the said harvest season, first week of June,” he said.

To ensure that importation is “inclusive, open and transparent,” he said the NFA Council chose the method of government-to-private (G2P) importation or open tender based on the same terms of reference in the 2017 G2P procurement.

G2P importation is when the government buys imported rice from private importers who use permits under the minimum access volume (MAV) scheme to import rice. The NFA Council last year introduced guidelines to the scheme to ensure it is not abused.

But Evasco was quick to clarify that there was no rice shortage, especially in the stock of government-subsidized rice.

“We assure the public that there is no rice shortage and this importation is only as to NFA’s buffer stock. In this manner, the NFA Council has issued a directive on the reassessment of the inventory of the NFA, including its procurement and distribution strategies,” Evasco said.