Venezuela seizes 1/2 ton milk and chicken from clinic

CARACAS Mon Feb 18, 2008 10:42am GMT

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Shoppers in oil-rich Venezuela often can't find basic food items in stores but the government of President Hugo Chavez on Sunday turned up a huge stash of milk and chicken in a private health clinic.

Inspectors from the consumer protection agency Indecu found the shelves of the upscale Caracas Policlinica Metropolitana stocked with half a tonne of milk and a similar amount of chicken.

Indecu coordinator Jesus Benavides told reporters the products had been illegally diverted from a chain of state-run subsidized grocery stores, which sell primarily to poor Venezuelans who form Chavez's support base.

The clinic will face fines for violating an anti-hoarding law Chavez passed last year and a possible criminal investigation, Benavides said.

Chavez has repeatedly complained that private clinics charge too much for services and has threatened to take them over. Policlinica Metropolitana did not answer calls seeking comment.

Business leaders blame Chavez's strict price controls for shortages in the OPEC nation, saying they have not kept pace with inflation which has created a thriving black market.

Venezuela has benefited from high oil prices but faces Latin America's highest inflation, which reached 22.5 percent last year.

Government leaders attribute the shortages of basic foodstuffs to increased demand by poor families. They also say unscrupulous businesses are hoarding food or smuggling it into neighboring Colombia where it fetches higher prices.

Chavez has won broad support from the nation's poor by using oil revenues to finance social programs, but his supporters are increasingly complaining about food shortages, rampant crime and poor trash collection.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Fabian Andres Cambero, editing by Alan Elsner)

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