October 3, 2006

Marketing products - Honduran style

Hondurans have their own way of doing things and that's the way it's going to be no matter what. To heck with what the customers want. To heck with the market. To heck with quality. This is the way we do it here and that is not going to change.

A good example is cheese. The government of Honduras wants to export cheese. The cheese makers want to export cheese. It would be good for the economy. The problem is that Hondurans make lousy cheese under unsanitary conditions.

It tastes so salty that no one in the world likes it, other than Hondurans. Personally, I think the salt is to disguise the fact that the milk often spoils before or during the process of making the cheese.

El Salvador banned the importation of Honduran cheese in 1998 because Hondurans refused to use pasteurized milk in their cheese, but has since begun importing it again.

Hondurans tried exporting cheese to Nicaragua. The Nicaraguans told them, "We don't like this salty cheese." Did the Hondurans even try to make their cheese just a little less salty? No, of course not. So Nicaragua said "No more Honduran cheese."

Then they tried exporting cheese to the U.S. I have no idea who was buying it in the U.S., unless it was the million or so Hondurans who live there. The problem was that the cheese did not meet the sanitation requirements to be sold in the U.S.

After the first few inspections the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the exporters a warning and said if you want to sell this cheese in the U.S., you have to clean up your act. So, did they? Of course not.

FDA inspections showed that the cheese was not fit for human consumption, containing all sorts of nasty stuff up to and including salmonella, tuberculosis, and E. coli bacteria. And these weren't only the small producers, one of the largest milk and dairy producers in Honduras was on the list.

So now most Honduran dairy products are banned from the U.S. The few companies that have permits apparently still haven't learned their lesson as shown by this August 2006 Refusal Report of the FDA.

No importance is given to the cleanliness of the area where the cheese is produced. The newspaper once had an article about making 'artisan' cheese. There were no hair nets or rubber gloves shown here. In one picture, two men were sticking their hairy arms into a tub of cheese-in-the-making with no gloves or other protection. Another picture showed a man wearing rubber boots standing in the cheese which sat in a tub on the floor. Maybe the boots were sterilized but I was wondering how he got from the obviously dirty floor to the vat of cheese in those boots.

Even though these are fresh cheeses made from raw milk with a very short shelf life, no importance is placed on refrigeration of cheese before, during, or after the cheese making process. Unrefrigerated cheese is sold in (hot) open air markets, sometimes with a towel covering it to keep the flies off, but many times not. The excuse given is that people can't afford refrigeration, as if that is justification for selling spoiled or contaminated food to unsuspecting customers. Grocery stores frequently sell dairy products with no expiration date labels.

Most of the cheeses smell like a combination of old, sweaty tennis shoes and sour milk. The following quote is from a 2000 article entitled "The sordid world of Honduran cheese" published in Honduras This Week:
"There are actually grades and varieties of cheese ranging from offensive (quesillo) to gross (queso) to completely and totally disgusting (requeson). If you go to a cheese store − and I'm not telling you to go to a cheese store, as a matter of fact, by all means don't − but if you do, you can find dozens of varieties of cheese. 'Soft,' 'hard,' 'crumbly,' 'dry,' 'wet' and 'jalepeño' are just some of the defining characteristics. They all have one common denominator, though, which is stinky."
In possibly related recent news, over a 15-day period, five separate contraband shipments of Nicaraguan cheese were decommissioned by the police after being smuggled into Honduras. The shipments ranged from 9,000 to 28,000 lbs. (4,082 - 12,701 kg.).

This is not to say that all Honduran cheese is terrible or that raw milk cheese is a bad thing. It isn't if the raw milk is absolutely free of harmful bacteria. It is a shame that all Honduran cheese makers get lumped together. Occasionally I find a brand that isn't bad, but the next time I go to the store, that brand isn't available anymore or the next batch isn't as good as the last. Based on the bad reputation, though, even when it tastes good I can't help but wonder what exactly I'm eating. So, for the most part, I just avoid Honduran cheese.

Many Hondurans just accept the fact that everything they buy or eat is going to be low quality. There are two levels of quality in Honduras. Good things, defined as calidad de exportacion (export quality), are sent to more fortunate countries and everything else is defined as calidad Hondureño (Honduran quality). We accept that anything done well in Honduras will be shipped and sold to another country and that only the dregs will be left for its citizens.
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