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Meat, Sugar Scarce in Venezuela Stores

by 5m Editor
9 February 2007, at 2:36am

VENEZUELA - Meat cuts vanished from Venezuelan supermarkets this week, leaving only unsavory bits like chicken feet, while costly artificial sweeteners have increasingly replaced sugar, and many staples sell far above government-fixed prices.

President Hugo Chavez's administration blames the food supply problems on unscrupulous speculators, but industry officials say government price controls that strangle profits are responsible. Authorities on Wednesday raided a warehouse in Caracas and seized seven tons of sugar hoarded by vendors unwilling to market the inventory at the official price.

Major private supermarkets suspended sales of beef earlier this week after one chain was shut down for 48 hours for pricing meat above government-set levels, but an agreement reached with the government on Wednesday night promises to return meat to empty refrigerator shelves.

Shortages have sporadically appeared with items from milk to coffee since early 2003, when Chavez began regulating prices for 400 basic products as a way to counter inflation and protect the poor.

Yet inflation has soared to an accumulated 78 percent in the last four years in an economy awash in petrodollars, and food prices have increased particularly swiftly, creating a widening discrepancy between official prices and the true cost of getting goods to market in Venezuela.

"Shortages have increased significantly as well as violations of price controls," Central Bank director Domingo Maza Zavala told the Venezuelan broadcaster Union Radio on Thursday. "The difference between real market prices and controlled prices is very high."

Most items can still be found, but only by paying a hefty markup at grocery stores or on the black market. A glance at prices in several Caracas supermarkets this week showed milk, ground coffee, cheese and beans selling between 30 percent to 60 percent above regulated prices.

The state runs a nationwide network of subsidized food stores, but in recent months some items have become increasingly hard to find.

At a giant outdoor market held last weekend by the government to address the problems, a street vendor crushed raw sugar cane to sell juice to weary shoppers waiting in line to buy sugar.

Source: The Washington Post

5m Editor