Weather sends produce prices soaring

Jim Hillibish

Consumers always find some produce temporarily scarce and more expensive in winter. But this year, it’s historic.

The National Weather Service reports this is the first time in 50 years that vegetable crops in Florida, Texas and Mexico were damaged by winter frost at the same time. This has driven up prices of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and bell peppers, and it causes vendors to scurry to find an alternate supply.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that wholesale prices for many fresh vegetables have doubled since January.

Jeff Custer, assistant produce manager at Acme Fresh Market in Canton, Ohio, reports tomatoes are retailing 20 to 25 percent higher than normal. Most varieties are up $1 a pound, to $2.69. His grape tomatoes are $3.99 a pound.

“Availability has been hit-or-miss. Our buyers are purchasing them wherever they can find them,” he said.

Acme usually offers Florida sweet corn in March, but they haven’t found any to sell. Lettuce is selling for $3 a head, and Custer said cases of lettuce are 30 percent smaller with the same number of heads.

“I’ve never seen that in my 31 years in this business,” he said.

Erin Seeley, produce manager at Buehler’s Fresh Foods in Canton, said her company is not having trouble finding produce.

“Prices are up, and it can be hard to find top quality. Tomato prices are up $1 a pound in a month,” she said.

Growers expect the market turmoil will last through April. But some major tomato users, such as Wendy’s restaurants, are rationing tomatoes, providing them only to those who ask for them.

Wendy’s is especially exposed, as Mexico and Florida are its primary suppliers. The company explains, “For a short time, we will offer them, if available, by request only.”

Burger King communications analyst Denise Williams reports the chain is re-supplying its restaurants with tomatoes “as they become available.” She said signs in each store inform customers of availability.

Subway is trying to use fewer tomatoes and peppers: four pepper and four tomato slices instead of six on each foot-long sandwich. Signs in some stores are say to ask if you want them.

Subway’s David Berri said, “Costs are out of control.” He said restaurants are trying to avoid passing higher prices on to patrons.

Sysco Corp., the nation’s largest food distributor that supplies raw and canned foods to many local restaurants, advises customers that tomatoes will be of “mediocre quality, expensive and in short supply for up to 60 days.” The company reports the California harvest, primarily for canners, is winding down.

“(Canned) supplies are adequate, but the rise in raw-product costs are expected to cause inflated prices,” a Sysco spokesman said.

Price swings are setting records. In February, the USDA said a 25-pound crate of tomatoes went from $9.50 wholesale to $29.75 — in two days. By Feb. 21, a 10-pound carton of tomatoes was $31.25. Six weeks earlier, it was $20.

In any event, high prices are hardly permanent. The USDA reported last June that tomato prices had plummeted 78 percent in three months. Wholesale prices had spiked after a January 2010 freeze that was five times higher than the previous year.