Puerto Rico supermarket shelves empty as P.E.I. potato supply dries up

Potato importers in Puerto Rico say they are not able to fill their orders to supermarkets on the Caribbean island because they can’t get enough supply to fill the void created by the export ban on PEI potatoes.

More than 80 per cent of Puerto Rico’s potatoes would usually come from Prince Edward Island.

“We are in a bad, bad situation right now,” said Mark Antunez, president of Antunez & Son Produce, who has been importing from PEI since 1988.

“We are the ones who supply the stores. There is about five or six big companies in Puerto Rico who supply the market, and there are no potatoes in the market.”

Antunez said his potato cooler is now filled with other vegetables, as he searches for more potatoes.

“For example, normally I bought three or four containers a week from Prince Edward Island. Last week we ordered three loads and they guarantee just one,” Antunez said.

“That’s what I got in inventory, less what we already supplied our customers, and they do not have supply in the stores either.”

We are in a bad, bad situation right now.— Mark Antunez

Antunez said he had been receiving potatoes from New Brunswick, but they are not able to fill his request for three containers, sending him just one.

“We started being supplied from New Brunswick because in the United States, there is not plenty of potato to supply the States, plus the island of Puerto Rico,” Antunez said.

“But the New Brunswick company, probably they have their regular customers, plus on top of that add more customers like the US, plus Puerto Rico. It’s not easy for them.”

Antunez says his potato cooler is now filled with other vegetables, as he searches for more potatoes. (Submitted by Mark Antunez)

‘We need potatoes’

Antunez said there have also been delays when the shipments do arrive because of extra scrutiny from border authorities, including the USDA.

“They put all the containers in hold for inspection. And sometimes it takes one or two days after we receive the containers in our warehouse, until they came to verify that the merchandise is not from PEI,” Antunez said.

“So it takes longer from the day that I received to supply my customers, to deliver the merchandise to my customers because of that — because the inspections.”

Antunez says his company has been buying potatoes from PEI since they started the company in 1988. (Submitted by Mark Antunez)

Antunez said he is now rationing the potatoes he is able to import to Puerto Rico, meaning none of his customers are receiving their full orders.

“I have to split my one container that I receive, and normally I move three containers,” Antunez said.

“So in order to make 10, 15, 20 bags of potatoes, I can supply you just with three or four or five because I have just one container for all my customers.”

The PEI Potato Board says the Island ships between $18 and $20 million of potatoes to Puerto Rico. (Submitted by Caribbean Produce)

Antunez said the potato is an important staple in the territory’s economy, one that many food-insecure Puerto Ricans rely on.

“We in Puerto Rico, 3.2 million is our population and probably 55-60 per cent of them use the help from the food stamps, from the government,” Antunez said.

We are talking about hundreds of containers of PEI potatoes that are not coming right now—Edwin Vasquez

“Potatoes are a cheap item that we can supply, because a five-pound bag of potatoes, you can buy for two or three dollars. That’s a good item to feed the people of Puerto Rico. We need potatoes.”

Antunez also pointed out the US territory does not grow potatoes so there is no threat to local agriculture from the potato wart fungus, which he said is yet another reason to reopen the border to potatoes from PEI

NB ‘making us a favour’

Edwin Vasquez at Raul Rosa Distributors said he is also struggling to get enough potatoes to Puerto Rico.

“We bring four to five containers each month just for four supermarkets, and we have more than 200 supermarkets on the island,” Vasquez said.

A truckload of potatoes in Puerto Rico. More than 80 per cent of Puerto Rico’s potatoes usually come from PEI (Joe Colon Studio)

“You can imagine imagine how many products we use in Puerto Rico. We are talking about hundreds of containers of PEI potatoes that are not coming right now,” Vasquez said.

“Just last night I was at a supermarket and the shelf with the potatoes has nothing in there.”

Vasquez said he had been receiving potatoes from New Brunswick, arranged through his usual contacts on Prince Edward Island, but now only has about a week-and-a-half of inventory left.

“Over the next month, I think I got one, maybe two containers from New Brunswick,” Vasquez said.

“As far as I know, New Brunswick would have markets in the US So basically they are making us a favor to sell potatoes to Puerto Rico right now.”

Tropical Shipping has a weekly sailing from the port of Halifax to Puerto Rico. This is the Canadian vessel arriving at the port of San Juan. (Submitted by Tropical Shipping)

Vasquez said his company has also had additional expenses because of increased inspections of shipments coming from New Brunswick.

“As soon as the container arrives, you have to make an FDA inspection,” Vasquez said.

“A container that usually takes one to three days to take out of the pier, right now has to go to the inspection warehouse. And it takes about five, seven, even 10 days to take the container to our warehouses.”

In 2020, sales to Puerto Rico accounted for about 25 per cent of PEI’s sales to the United States. (Joe Colon Studio)

Vasquez said those increased costs will also be added to the price of potatoes when they get to the supermarket.

Weekly shipments to Puerto Rico ended abruptly when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency banned the export of potatoes from PEI on Nov. 21 in response to American concerns around the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields.

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