Headline — 30 December 2017 — by Rowland A. Parks
The Christmas ham story: locally produced versus imported hams

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Dec. 28, 2017–  The Christmas season is a time when the majority of Belizeans absolutely must have ham and turkey for the family dinner. When it comes to hams, there is a choice between locally produced hams and imported hams. Taste is not the only factor. Less tasty imported hams are cheaper, and they flood the market at Christmas time.

Amandala spoke to some of the local producers who explained the politics of their industry, how it works, and how they try to remain competitive in the wake of the entry of much cheaper foreign imports into the market.

Amandala asked SouthSide Meats owner, Mark Lizarraga, to break down what happened this season with the selling of hams, and how the imported hams affected his sales. Lizarraga said that this is a long story, but a story that needs to be told.

“There have been efforts over the years, some years more than others, to try and support the local producers in their efforts to produce more, so that we could buy more pigs from the local farmers, so that we could create more jobs. Because the demand is seasonal and the demand is so large, it’s difficult for the local market to fully meet all that demand. So there is need for some importation at this time,” Lizarraga explained.

Lizarraga said the local producers begin to make their hams from around August, but there is a great uncertainty, because most of us have limited capacity for storage and refrigeration is very expensive, because electricity is very expensive in Belize. “It’s not that we don’t have the technology to produce it in Belize, we do,” he said.

Lizarraga said that under the Said Musa government, the trend was for the local producers to produce more, but that has changed and import permits are given indiscriminately.

Amandala asked Lizarraga to explain how the amount of permits for imports affects the local producers.

Lizarraga said the imported hams tend to be cheaper than the locally produced hams, because pork is more expensive in Belize, and the cost of producing hams is higher in Belize. “So it is natural that these products come in and they flood the markets first,” Lizarraga said.

Amandala asked Lizarraga about the price difference between the local and the imported hams. “I think the local hams sell for like 50 cents per pound more wholesale than the imported hams, but the price varies, because some of the local picnics are made without skins,” he said.

Lizarraga said a lot of things happen in that chain of importation that puts us at a disadvantage, but he noted that the present state of affairs in the industry takes away from the local producers that initiative to take the risk. “Because we have had years where we are making these hams but we can’t sell them. I have to say that the Belizean consumers are more and more supporting the local industry, and that pleases us because they are seeing the quality that we produce. I believe that we produce a very high quality,” remarked Lizarraga.

Lizarraga questioned “why these people who do not buy pigs during the year are given preference to import over the local producers.”

Amandala asked Lizarraga, if there were no imports, how much local producers would have to produce to satisfy the market.

“Those numbers were shared with us in the past, but we no longer get those numbers,” he replied.

Lizarraga said that “earlier this year, about six months into the year, there was an effort to encourage the local producers to produce more. Then about three to four months ago it stopped. It died. There was no interest on the part of government to continue. It died because they know the Christmas season was coming and they know they were not going to keep their promise. They made us waste six months of our time, only to drop through.”

Amandala asked Lizarraga who is the biggest importer of hams in Belize.

“I wish I knew, but that information, it seems is top secret again. But I understand that one person received 100 thousand pounds, and another person received 50 thousand pounds. That is what is on paper. That is the paper value, but you never know what really comes in,” he replied.

Amandala also spoke to Matthew Smiling from Smiling Meats.

“Some years ago, we used to make a lot of hams and we started to see that we were left with a lot of hams, because our locally produced hams can’t compete with the imported hams,” he said.

Smiling added, “We can’t complete with the price of the imported hams, so we just started cutting down on the amount that we make.

“Yes, we all know that the government gives importation license and we also get importation license for hams, but we don’t know the quantity and who gets what. I know for my business, I didn’t get what I requested. But we have made that choice not to produce a lot of hams, because years past we were left with a lot of hams.”

Smiling also explained that the cost of producing hams locally makes the price higher than the cost of the imports. “So we don’t get value for our products,” he said.

Amandala asked Smiling if the local producers would be able to fill the gap if the government desisted from giving out permits for ham imports.

“I don’t know if that is possible at this time. We have to be realistic about it. A lot of Belizeans prefer the cheaper products. Yes, they acknowledge that the local product is a much better product, but still it’s the pricing,” he said.

He added, “For our local products, what I did six years ago, I probably do like a quarter of that now. My suppliers are complaining that I am not buying legs and shoulders from them. And I explained to them that I am not making the hams.”

Smiling said, “In the past they used to make 25, sometimes up to 30 thousand pounds of hams from here. We don’t even do 10 thousand now.”

Smiling explained that if they were to make a lot of hams, they would still sell some, but not all, because most people go for the cheaper product.

“Do you have any idea how many hams are imported into the country”, Amandala asked Smiling.

“I think they say about 300 thousand pounds,” Smiling replied. Asked if the local producers can produce that amount, Smiling said he doesn’t think we can do that at this time.

“Our industry, well I could speak for the processing part, we are not subsidized. Those imports are subsidized from the raw materials to the finished product; we cannot compete with that,” Smiling said.

“How do you see the future of the local ham producing industry?” Amandala asked.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” Smiling answered.

In a telephone interview with Amandala, Escander Bedran from Running W Meats said, “I don’t know if they gave permits this year. I am not aware of what they gave out.”

Asked if government would stop the importation of hams, if the local industry could satisfy the market demand, Bedran replied, “The country cannot produce what is being consumed.”

Bedran said the amount of hams that is being consumed is in the region of 400 thousand pounds.

Bedran said the cheap imports don’t affect his business because the imports contain 25 percent water, and the local hams have only about 10 percent water and are 10 to 20 times better than the imports. “We produce our hams 6 months in advance and the imported hams are produced like 2 years in advance,” he said.

All the ham producers we spoke with agreed that Belize’s locally produced hams cannot compete with imported hams when it comes to pricing. As Matthew Smiling explained, “Those imports are subsidized from the raw materials to the finished product.”

Some observers believe that there might be another reason for imported hams being much cheaper than locally made hams. These observers suspect that government agencies might not be collecting all the import fees on the imported cured pork.

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Deshawn Swasey

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