Friday, June 17, 2011

“Where’s the (Corned) Beef?”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

“Where’s the beef?” – Clara Peller, from a series of Wendy’s commercials in the 1980’s

In this column, I have occasionally talked about being a retail manager in and around Geauga County. As one half of a dual career path, my ‘other’ profession has often produced interesting stories for the newspaper.

Recently, I was reminded of that fact while pondering the unavailability of canned corned beef at the supermarket where I am a manager.

Brief outages with our main warehouse have sometimes occurred as company buyers struggled to anticipate market conditions and customer habits. But the disappearance of this packaged meat lasted longer than usual. First one month, then two. And three. We were assured that fresh product would be on hand by January. Then March or April. Yet the vacancy on my shelf continued.

Amazingly, other food retailers in the area seemed to be experiencing the same interruption in supply. But while news reports typically follow a situation of this magnitude, there was nothing in our local papers, or on radio and television. As I discussed the problem with other managers in the area, it became clear that the cause was a complete mystery to everyone.

Canned corned beef had simply vanished from the market.

I began to think of summer sandwiches of the stuff, made on rye bread with lettuce, onions and tomatoes. Meanwhile, shoppers at my store offered a variety of their own recipes while mourning the meat’s absence.

Eventually, the journalistic side of my career took over. I began to investigate the loss of canned corned beef in greater detail.

In a story posted on the WalletPop website, Linda Doell offered the first explanation of the shortage that I could find:

“More than 200 tons of cooked beef products were recalled in three connected recalls last year by Sampco Inc. The Chicago meat company imported the beef from a Brazilian processor barred from shipping to the United States after high levels of the animal drug Ivermectin was found in its products. Ivermectin is used to treat parasites in animals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Sampco provided beef for such products as Libby Corned Beef, Brushy Creek Shredded Beef and Kroger Corned Beef. A trade group, food producers and retailers contacted for this story kept their lips as tightly sealed as the cans themselves over the corned beef shortage. Hormel and Con Agra -- the parent company of Libby's -- didn't respond to requests for comment. Neither did Kroger or Wegmans.”

Like most people, I’d never heard of Ivermectin before. But an article on PetPlace by Dr. Dawn Ruben offered more information about the drug:

“Parasitic diseases are common in animals. Parasites can affect the skin, ears, stomach and intestines, and the internal organs including the heart, lungs and liver. Several drugs have been developed to kill or prevent parasites such as fleas, ticks, mites and worms. Ivermectin and related drugs are among the most effective of these. Ivermectin is a parasite control drug. Ivermectin causes neurologic damage to the parasite, resulting in paralysis and death. Ivermectin has been used to prevent parasite infections, as with heartworm prevention, and to treat infections, as with ear mites.”

Eventually, one of my customers said that she had discovered a small store east of Geauga County with canned corned beef for sale. But the price had nearly doubled – from $3.49 to $5.00. This made me wonder about eBay as an alternate source for the packaged meat. A quick search revealed that it was being offered by a seller from Puerto Rico at $7.99 per can.

Strangely, production of corned beef ‘hash’ did not seem to have been affected by the Ivermectin-related import ban. I noted that both brands normally carried at my supermarket were still on the shelf. The availability of fresh corned beef briskets was also unaffected. I reckoned that both must depend on a different supply chain to reach stores in the area.

After several visits, one persistent customer confessed her reason for seeking canned corned beef with such gusto - she used the meat to create a Spanish-style dish for her husband. The woman said that after being combined with spices and other ingredients, the corned beef mixture was placed between orange, tortilla-like discs which were crimped together, and baked. It made me think of a calzone.

I promised myself that once the corned beef supply had been restored, we would try her recipe in the household kitchen.

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Blogger Unknown said...

I used to find it available at Big Lots for $2 per can. Since December 2010 I couldn't find it there. I made do with Armor Treet as a (very inferior) substitute for my workday lunch. After a few months of not seeing it, I missed it and thought I'd splurge and buy it at full price at Safeway. In the past it had been $2.62 per can there. It wasn't available at any price. The store manager said they just weren't carrying it anymore and that she didn't know why. After further searching I found that Wal-Mart sometimes had it and sometimes didn't but charged $3.78 when they did. They have since raised the price to $3.89, and it still is not consistently available. Food City had it on hand, but they charged $5 for it. I read that the Brazilian crisis ended, but it's August and I still have trouble finding it. The new Brazilian supply must be on a very slow ship, and if they're going to charge that much for it, they might as well make it here. We have plenty of beef in the USA and plenty of people who need jobs and would be glad to work in a cannery.

--Kevin Walsh
Phoenix AZ

11:32 PM  

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