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The Tuna in the CLAPs Is of Vegetal Origin

A study by Mexican authorities confirms what the palate of the Venezuelans quickly detected: There is something odd in the Mexican canned tuna that comes in the combos of the Local Supply and Production Committee (CLAP). At least three of the brands that the poorest homes have consumed in the country since March 2016, when the state plan was formalized, have high proportions of soy, a vegetable protein that although not harmful, it does not have the same taste and protein contribution of tuna. Behind the addition of soy there is an operation to reduce costs where all the intermediaries, handpicked by the Venezuelan Government to buy the goods, have participated.

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Suspicions about the poor quality of the food that the Venezuelan Government distributes under the program of Local Supply and Production Committees (Claps) are confirmed and expanded. Now, objections are not only about powder milk. A study carried out by the Federal Bureau of Consumer Interests of Mexico (Profeco) recently determined that some of the brands produced and packaged in that country for that state food subsidy program in Venezuela contain high levels of soy.

The analysis, conducted from October 5 to December 14, 2018, covered the 27 canned tuna brands present at that time in the Mexican market. According to the results of the test, 14 brands showed high soy content added. Some presentations had more volume of soy than fish, which startled the Mexican general public. But the finding is not unfamiliar to Venezuelans. Since Nicolás Maduro formalized the plan in March 2016, Mexico has been one of the countries where intermediaries handpicked by the Government buy the products of the food combo, including canned tuna.

One of the most valued brands in the Mexican market, which has reached the homes of the poorest in Venezuela with the so-called Clap boxes, is El Dorado. The presentation of 140 grams of yellowfin tuna in oil has 21% to 44% of soy in "drained solids", while the version in water had an index of 13% to 22% of soy in "drained solids." Both values easily exceed the values registered by the brand in the examination conducted by the same institution in 2015. Back then, the canned tuna in oil showed 9% to 26% of soy, while in water it had 4% to 9% of soy.

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"In soy concentrations of 30%, 40%, and even 60%, as we found it, the soy ingredient replaces fish," affirms Guadalupe Velasco Rodríguez, director of the biological-chemical area of the Profeco laboratory. In addition to the deception of consumers that the replacement represents because the label does not specify the soy percentage, there are also nutritional implications for consumers when the final protein contribution of the product is changed.

"For every 100 grams (3.5 oz) -a standard measure- you will have an important amount of protein but never as significant as that of tuna muscle, because tuna has no carbohydrates or other components, while soy does, hence, it does not have so much protein," explains Pablo Hernández, nutritionist and professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), the main state and autonomous university, after analyzing the results of the Mexican agency. He explains that the vegetable protein is absorbed and digested slower than the animal protein, which "does not harm or affect health," unless the person is allergic to soy.

El Dorado is not the only Mexican brand of canned tuna with high concentrations of soy included in the Clap combos. The Ancla brand tuna in oil contains 10% to 14% of soy in "drained solids." The canned tuna in water ranges between 17% and 26%. Both presentations also showed high concentrations of soy in the analysis that Profeco conducted in 2015, but that did not prevent them from supplying the combos subsidized by the Venezuelan Government.

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A third brand called Tuny totaled 1% to 4% of soy for the yellowfin product in water. "It would be justifiable to find one percent of soy, for example, if used with a technological purpose (some producers use soy broth to compact the fish). Our conclusion is that soy is replacing fish," says the director of Profeco.

The Mexican authorities approved since 2017 "certificates of free sale export" to Venezuela for both El Dorado and Tuny, as well as other brands that were not analyzed by Profeco. It seems clear that behind the addition of soy to canned tuna there is an operation to lower costs and increase profitability: The greater the amount of vegetable protein, the lower the cost of the product. This practice of Mexican industrialists, discovered by the authorities, bounces in Venezuelans’ stomachs.

What goes around comes around/ A mouth Close Catches No Flies

Complaints about the quality of the Claps’ food emerged almost from the beginning of the state plan. Indeed, canned tuna and milk powder have been the products most questioned by the beneficiaries of the program with which Maduro affirms to be facing an "economic war" by local businessmen and international factors.

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The poor quality of the milk was verified after the Institute of Science and Food Technology of the UCV, at the request of Armando.info, analyzed 14 Mexican brands that were distributed in the Claps from late 2017 to early 2018. The analyzes showed that the companies lied in the labeling and ended up packing a paste high in sodium and carbohydrates, but low in calcium and proteins, far from the requirements of the Venezuelan nutritional standard.

On October 18, 2018, the Attorney General's Office of Mexico revealed that it had detected a "fraudulent scheme" between Venezuelan government intermediaries and Mexican companies, whereby "low quality products" were sold and exported at an "overprice." On that occasion, the Mexican authorities pointed a finger directly to the network hatched by Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas, main beneficiaries in the mediation behind the Claps.

Profeco's study now confirms what the palate of Venezuelan consumers detected almost immediately, as well as the alerts from sources involved in the sale of products for the Claps. "Venezuelan intermediaries came to Mexico asking for the cheapest tuna on the market, regardless of whether it was at the expense of quality. As to the cheap milk, they were told that the protein would be reduced up to three times, and in the case of canned tuna, it would have more soy than fish. But they only cared to save two to four dollars per box," admits an anonymous Mexican entrepreneur.

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Official figures indicate that from 2016 to 2018, 231 million Clap combos have been distributed. Although the plan aimed to produce food, as small cells throughout the country, most of these combos have been imported and many of them were bought in Mexico by intermediaries who finally sold them to the Government of Maduro at 31 to 37 US dollars. "In Mexico, up to 2,000 Clap boxes were brought together per day. How much money could this savings represent? If they saved two dollars per box, it represented 4,000 dollars per day and if they managed to save four dollars per box, that meant 8,000 dollars per day," says the entrepreneur.

In the case of canned tuna, nutritionist Pablo Hernández explains that "soy protein isolate, although slightly more expensive, it is not as expensive as animal protein. So, whether it is whole soy, soy flour or soy protein, it will always less expensive than regular meat."

In January 2017, Group Grand Limited ?the company registered in Hong Kong with which Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido started their participation in the sale of food for the Claps since late 2016? invoiced the canned tuna at $ 6.29 per kilogram. Months later, in September, it charged it at $ 4.22. In that period, it increased the price of each Clap box from 34 to 36.9 dollars. Other intermediaries, like M.I.R Importació I Exportació charged $ 4.71 per kilogram of canned tuna in October 2017. Wellsford Trading Corp and FB Foods, both Panamanians, J&B International Trading, domiciled in Miami, or Mass Joy Industries Limited, also registered in Hong Kong, have been other intermediaries. Each Clap box contains, in the best of cases, up to six cans of tuna, a total of around 800 grams per box. It is one of the 11 products included in the subsidized food combo.

The profit of the intermediaries is in detriment of the quality. There could be other brands of canned tune with high concentrations of soy sold through the Claps. Marhel, La Marina, Mazatún and Capitán Nemo identify on their labels the presence of soy or "vegetable broth," but without specifying the proportion. None of these brands was analyzed by Profeco, as they did not circulate through the marketing channels in the domestic market of Mexico at the time of sample collection. 

In addition, several of these brands offered presentations of flaked or shredded tuna, which multiplies the possibility of finding more soy. "The products were we found more percentages of soy were the flaked and shredded presentations, which are the cheapest," said the director of Profeco's laboratory.

Those versions of flaked or shredded tuna have been the most criticized by Venezuelans. In social media videos and comments about their bad appearance, unpleasant taste or lack of consistency have boomed. "The tuna in the Clap box is always minced because it's not real tuna, just fish waste that they grind to make it look like tuna. When you try it you realize that it tastes more like the sardine but quite unpleasant," wrote a user on February 18.

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The May 15, 2017 edition of Diario 2001 newspaper is proof that the complaints go back in time. The cover story on that day was about a family that affirmed that two babies died for eating Clap tuna. "A family of Ocumare del Tuy (State of Miranda) denounces intoxication from eating products from a Clap box bought a day earlier. Intake was lethal for the two youngest kids (11 months and two years old), who presented cerebral edema, according to the autopsy shown by relatives."

Venezuelan officials have avoided commenting on the quality of Clap food, although that was one of the flags used on February 23 to avoid the arrival of "humanitarian aid" promoted by the Venezuelan opposition. Only Maduro admitted in December 2017 that they received complaints on that regard, but said that "corrective measures were taken immediately." However, the complaint by the Attorney General in last year’s October, the finding in May 2018 in the port of Cartagena, Colombia, of 400 tons with Clap products "unfit" for human consumption, or this recent study by Profeco call the words of the president into question. At least no one seems to have noticed that they bought a canned tuna very different from the one sold in the Venezuelan market.

In Venezuela, companies that sell canned tuna do not add soy, at least the main brands. Moreover, most of the presentations are of fish loins, as established by the technical specifications. "The proportion of loin versus crumb should have a minimum of 80/20, that is, 80% loin and 20% crumb," established the quality standard that the Ministry of Food sent to Mexican suppliers, which is based on the Covenin 1412 standard.

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"Venezuelan tuna was always of very good quality. The different brands always declared 100% tuna. You ate real tuna. Now, when you do not have the opportunity to know what you are eating, it is one more factor that adds to the already deteriorated diet of Venezuelans," recalls Marianella Herrera, a nutritionist and director of the Venezuelan Health Observatory. She says that in some communities they have visited, consumers of Clap products said that they use "more mayonnaise to cover the taste" of canned tuna "because soy has a completely different flavor."

Beyond the taste, the specialist insists that the vegetable protein is not bad, but you should know "what is the proportion" contained in the product to know exactly how to meet the nutritional requirements "based on the group you want to feed."

So far, that has not been an impediment for Maduro’s Government to allocate millions of dollars for the products that his intermediaries buy to Mexican industrialists.

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* This is a work researched and published simultaneously by Armando.Info and the Excélsior of Mexico

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