Crisis in Puerto Rico as residents face canned corned beef shortages

I had to chuckle at this report from the Associated Press since, ludicrous as it may seem to the world at large, I felt a pang of fear at the thought of no corned beef in my home island. It brought a rush of nostalgia for home and my mother’s corned-beef-happy cooking and of sympathy for my embattled-corned-beef-deprived compatriots. May the shelves be filled again soon.

Sure Puerto Ricans can get fresh beef at the supermarket. But what many crave — and can’t get — comes out of a can.

A national shortage of canned corned beef caused by a recall has hit especially hard in the U.S. Caribbean territory, a place where the sodium-rich, cholesterol-laden product is a regular part of some beloved local specialties, such as the fritters known as alcapurrias.

With the tapered cans almost as rare as a chilly day on the island, senior officials are vexed and shoppers frustrated. It’s taken so seriously that the local newspaper El Vocero described it with a blunt headline: “Horror!”

The dwindling supply is blamed on a government-ordered recall of the product after the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered high levels of an anti-parasitic drug used for animals in batches produced at a packing plant in Brazil.

The recall was more than six months ago, but its effects are now rippling across the island. There’s a gap on the shelves where corned beef once sat, and some stores have nearly tripled the price for the few cans left.

“The shortage is significant,” said Luis Rivera Marin, secretary of the island’s Consumer Affairs Department, which includes canned corned beef on its list of 20 products in Puerto Rico’s staple food basket, an economic measuring tool.

The shortage also has hit the mainland U.S., and shoppers looking to breakfast on corned-beef hash have had to hunt for it in some areas.

“Due to the recent recall of canned corned beef, there has been an industrywide shortage,” said Bruni Torres, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Puerto Rico.

But Puerto Rico seems to have suffered most because it relies on a few badly affected suppliers.

The cans are usually found everywhere on the island, even in the tiniest of convenience stores.

The government urges people to stock up on canned corned beef during hurricane season, and a local song describes it as better than pork for Christmas dinner: “What did I serve? Green bananas with corned beef. Everyone was enjoying green bananas with corned beef … The pork was soon forgotten.”

Rivera says the shortage does have its silver lining: It has removed an unhealthy product from islanders’ diets.

“It is a time bomb,” he said. One small serving of canned corned beef contains about 13 per cent cholesterol, 15 per cent saturated fat and 20 per cent sodium.

Next year, public school cafeterias on the island will stop serving it to students because federal authorities have deemed it too high in fat and sodium and too low in nutritional value.

But many are not about to stop eating it.

Maria Mercedes Figueroa, 74, prepares meals with corned beef several times a week at her home in the northern mountain town of Gurabo and she reacted with disbelief on a recent trip to the grocery store.

“They had sausage, tuna, luncheon meat, but there was no corned beef,” she said. “I was desperate.”

“Everybody said, ‘Oh my God, there is no corned beef,'” she recalled with a laugh. “I have missed it tremendously.”

The shortage has boosted sales for the few companies who produce corned beef locally. Six months ago, Raul Rivera, owner of the Metzgermeister company, began selling corned beef in a bag. But that goes first to local restaurants before the rest is marketed to the public.

In 2009, Puerto Rico imported more than 6.6 million pounds (3 million kilograms) of corned beef worth nearly $13 million, according to the most recent statistics available from the island’s trade agency.

Most of it comes from Chicago-based Sampco Inc., which last spring recalled corned beef and other beef products suspected of containing high levels of an anti-parasitic drug used for animals.

The Brazilian plant that processes the meat was allowed to resume exports in December, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Marin said corned beef supplies should start trickling back in by April.

That is a relief to Migdalia Rivera, who helps manage a day care centre in the northern city of San Lorenzo and who laments that she can no longer prepare corned beef for the children: “They like it so much, but it is so expensive.”

Some restaurants and grocery stores have offered alternatives including chicken and fresh meats, said David Valle, a senior vice-president for TraFon Group, a local distributor.

But canned corned beef likely will remain popular. It’s affordable, and a single can can feed several people, Valle noted.

Figueroa said that as soon as she can find it, “I think I’m going to buy a dozen cans of corned beef so I can eat it every day.”

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