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Tomato buyers are feeling the squeeze

Weather and pest problems have hit farmers hard. Prices are high for consumers and higher for restaurants.
Tuesday, November 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Burgers, sandwiches and salads are missing them, and grocery store customers are paying three times the normal price for them.

The sign posted at Wendy’s on Bernadette Drive says it all: “Tomatoes by request only.”

“It’s a combination of hurricanes this summer, wet weather in California and pest problems in Mexico that caused the tomato shortage,” Ray Gilmer of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association said.

Florida, California and south Texas supply 3.5 billion of the

5.5 billion pounds of tomatoes consumed in the United States annually. The other 2 billion pounds are brought in from south of the border, said David Trinklein, associate professor of horticulture at MU.

“After Hurricane Charley, we had two more, Jeanne and Frances, come through tomato farming area in Florida,” Gilmer said.

Two-thirds of the tomato crop was lost, Trinklein said.

“It’s Economics 101,” Gilmer said. “I’d say prices have at least doubled, and some have tripled.”

The Columbia Applebee’s restaurant has felt the crunch. The price of the fruit has gone from $13 for a 20-pound case to $59, and they’re often arriving unripe, general manager Ken Lutz said. Both the corporation and franchise stores are eating the higher cost, so prices are not expected to rise, he said.

But the kitchen is leaving them off burgers, sandwiches and salads, Lutz said, unless customers specifically ask for them. That’s saving the restaurant about $30 per day, he said.

Wendy’s is also feeling the bite.

The wholesale price the restaurant pays has gone from $8 to $52 per 25-pound case, but a manager at the Columbia store said they’re still being ordered, but they’re available only on request.

A disclaimer on the Wendy’s Web site explains the impact the hurricanes have had on the quality and availability of tomatoes. The company also sought to deflect attention from the substandard fruit by promoting its children’s meals instead, according to a November report by foodservice.com.

But the worst could be over.

“The price has peaked and is starting to come down,” Hy-Vee Food Store produce manager Tim Lugar said.

Demand has also dropped slightly, although some customers are willing to pay the going rate of $3.99 per pound, triple the normal price, he said.

The quality has remained “as it has always been,” Lugar said.

And he had a prediction: “The price will be high during most of December. They probably won’t be normal, but they will come down a little bit.”


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