Sure Puerto Ricans can get fresh beef at the supermarket. However, 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 US 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 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 US 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 US 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 industry-wide shortage,” said Bruni Torres, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart in Puerto Rico.
However, Puerto Rico seems to have suffered most because it relies on a few badly affected suppliers.
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.’’
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.”
The government urges people to stock up on canned corned beef during the 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 said the shortage does have its silver lining: It has removed an unhealthy product from the islander’s diets.