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SYDNEY-Qantas expects to hand out around 45,000 free bags of Australian rice to all travelers to Japan this month as part of a promotion by the Australian Rice Growers Cooperative to break into the Japanese market.

The growers are taking advantage of a serious rice shortage that hit Japan last year to convince Japanese that the Australian-grown product is equal to their own. The shortage forced Japan to open its rice market for the first time last December. In a deal reached at the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade, imports amounting to 4% of the country's consumption of an estimated 6.63 million tons this year are permitted. Starting next year, the percentage will increase gradually reaching 8% in the year 2000 (AAI, May 16).

The Qantas promotion is a deft way to get around strict emergency regulations by the Japan Food Agency, which is allowing foreign rice, mostly from the U.S., Australia and Taiwan, to be imported to meet the shortage in the domestic market. But foreigners are not allowed to advertise their product in Japanese media, or even hold in-store promotions, said a spokeswoman for Australia's Rice Growers Cooperative, which oversees all marketing.

"Japan's a tough market to crack," she said. "In the past they have had restrictions on imported rice but last year's shortage really left them in a bit of bother."

About 80% of Qantas passengers between Japan and Australia are Asian, according to the airline. The 375-gram rice packets (about three-quarters of a pound) are accompanied by information kits on the Australian rice industry explaining its historic links with Japan. The program, described as a joint promotion between the cooperative and Qantas, was developed in-house by the Rice Growers.

Qantas Regional Manager in Japan Warwick Blacker said this was the airline's first promotion of this type. Although he would not elaborate, it is designed to get the Japanese to think seriously about flying Qantas. The airline operates 32 flights a week between the two countries. In all about 16 tons of rice will be distributed.

The Rice Growers Cooperative markets both domestically and internationally all rice grown in Australia under a variety of brand names, such as Sunrise in Australia and Australian Sunwhite for the Qantas promotion. In its home market, the Rice Growers run an estimated $2 million to $3 million, handled by Clemenger BBDO.

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