Finally, Yankee Rice For Japanese Palates?

Japan has long barred American rice because of its taste. Protecting its rice farmers has a lot to do with this, too. Tokyo, though, has pledged to let more foreign foodstuffs in starting next year, so Washington is trying to figure out how to produce rice that will overcome the resistance of Japanese consumers, who spend $45 billion per year on the staple.

The key is a bread-box-size machine, used by Japanese officials to detect flavor flaws, called the Neuro-Fuzzy Rice Taste Tester. Its fuzzy-logic software makes sense of complex phenomena--taste appeal, for instance. The tester uses near-infrared light to measure such things as protein and moisture in rice. On a 0-to-100 scale, Japanese rice rates 75 and up. But the American stuff is in the unacceptable 65-to-75 range. Even with U.S. rice allowed in, odds are Japanese shoppers would shun it with scores like this.

Now, the U.S. Agriculture Dept. and Texas A&M University have their own Neuro-Fuzzy gizmo, on loan from its Japanese maker. American-grown rice will be tested after the fall harvest. That's good news for American rice growers, who already export nearly two-thirds of their 8.5 million-ton yearly crop.

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