This year during Carnaval I have a feeling is that the street vendors selling their .50¢ cones filled with homemade Helado de Coco will be doing really good business. Why? Estrella Azul the dairy company in Panama that controls 70%+ of the ice cream market in Panama shut down for plant improvements in January and the shutdown is taking longer than they thought. Go figure, it’s Panama!
For the last month people looking for ice cream in the store coolers and their local helado stands have found a notable absence of their favorite cold treat. The shutdown has affected not only the operations of Estrella Azul but it has disrupted the entire industry. Unfortunately consumers are being hit in the pocketbook and the lunch pails as the half-gallon container often acts as a vessel to pack their lunch in.
Other brands such as Borden and Bonlac are having difficulty coping with the high demand. Borden is a US brand and Bonlac is an Italian brand and both are also popular frozen treats. Shoppers are also buying imports such as Breyers, Blue Bunny, Häagen Dazs, Soy Dream, Starbucks and Dos Pinos that cost on average between $8.00 and $10.00 a quart. Compare that to Estrella Azul that has 22 flavors of ice cream and some of the lowest prices in the ice cream industry in Panama. A three-ounce container costs pennies in comparison, it’s one of the cheapest dairy treats in the world.
There have been various rumors circulating about why the plant is shut down. I’ve been told it is because they are using the vats normally used to make the ice cream to make beer for Carnaval. Another rumor has been that the shutdown was caused by a bacteria outbreak. The Ministerio de Salud (The Ministry of Health) issued a statement a week ago denying that there Brucellosis and Salmonella contamination in Estrella Azul dairy products. There have been no reported outbreaks of diarrhea and vomiting associated with the eating of dairy products in the country in the past seven weeks.
The truth likely more practical; Coca Cola purchased Estrella Azul in 2011 after several months of negotiations. The transaction allowed Coca-Cola to enter into the dairy industry and value added milk products in Latin America, and strengthened its range of non-carbonated beverage sector juice based drinks. Estrella Azul is now attempting to become ISO certified. It appears that in its quest to modernize, expand and improve to help them compete internationally, the people at Estrella Azul/Coca Cola forgot that they are still dealing with Panama. Here, you plan to be closed for thirty days but fully expect to be closed for at least 90 or more. So, until the plant is fully up to speed imports will have to be increased, other helado suppliers will have to increase their production or Panameños will be eating their local Helado de Coco or not be eating helado at all. On the other hand, the traditional lunch containers may also be changing in the campo.