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Tunisia’s Rice Shortage Hits Coeliac Sufferers

STORY: Tunisia is in the midst of a national rice shortage. But for Siwar Derbeli it’s not just another inconvenient symptom of a poor economy, but a source of hunger. As a coeliac, rice and rice-based products are one of the few staples she can comfortably eat. “I feel that they have forgotten me. They aren’t thinking about you and the fact that you’re dealing with this problem in your life. For instance, you come home and can’t find the basic food you need to eat. It’s a very unfortunate situation.”

Shortages of imported goods sold at subsidized rates have become more acute in Tunisia since last year. Staples such as wheat, sugar and dairy products have periodically disappeared from supermarket shelves along with some medicines. Although rice is not the most common staple in Tunisia, where bread, pasta and couscous are more frequently eaten… its lack of gluten makes it indispensable for the country’s estimated 100,000 people with coeliac disease – an autoimmune condition that prompts a dangerous response to gluten.

Siwar’s mother, Hasna – an unemployed widow – explains that finding gluten-free food is not easy and comes with a heavy price tag. “My heart aches a lot because of this situation. I have had to reduce cooking a variety of dishes to prevent her craving one of them and end up getting sick because of it. I’ve had to restrict my other children’s diets as well, so she doesn’t feel left out by not eating regular food. Unfortunately, her condition causes her stomach to swell, and there is no medicine for this ailment; her diet is the only remedy.”

The situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. The president of the Tunisian Association for Coeliac Disease says no ship is due to offload rice until December and that state-held stocks had already run out. The government denies the shortages are due to the crisis in public finances.

But talks for a foreign bailout have stalled and credit ratings agencies are warning that Tunisia may default on sovereign debt. That being said, analysts and Tunisia’s influential labor union claim the government is delaying or preventing the imports of subsidized goods to help cope with a $5 billion budget deficit.