A national shortage of canned corned beef caused by a recall has hit especially hard in Puerto Rico, where the sodium-rich, cholesterol-laden product is a regular part of some beloved local specialties, such as the fritters known as alcapurrias.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — 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.
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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 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 unhealthful product from islanders’ diets.
“It is a time bomb,” he said. One small serving of canned corned beef contains about 13 percent cholesterol, 15 percent saturated fat and 20 percent 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.
The shortage has boosted sales for the few companies that 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 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, 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.
Some restaurants and groceries 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 several people can be fed with a single can, Valle noted.