Tomatoes: Charlie Chaplin Threw Them, Now Hijackers Steal Them

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Thieves have stolen $250,000 worth of Florida tomatoes -- the most dramatic proof so far that inflation is sending commodity prices skyward. Call it "The Great Produce Robbery."

Sophisticated thieves set up what the New York Times says was a bogus trucking company and used it, in late March, to fool farmers into parting with six tractor-trailer loads of tomatoes. One of the victims, Bob Spencer, owner of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, Florida, was plucked of 40,000 pounds of tomatoes worth about $42,000. He supplies McDonald's and Burger King, among other customers.

Spencer says he and fellow growers had never before seen anything like this heist. "I hate to compare it to 9/11," he says, but for the tomato industry, it was as novel "as flying planes into a building. It was a very sophisticated operation."

At the time, prices for the kind of tomatoes Spencer grows were up around $25 for a 25-pound box. "With prices that high," he says, there's an opportunity for a thief to unload for $15 a box what he's stolen and still make good money. He says he is now taking new precautions to protect his tomatoes, but won't say what they are.

Prices and Weather

According to the Agricultural Marketing Service of the Department of Agriculture, tomato prices a year ago were around $1.84 per pound in major supermarkets. Right now, they're more like $2.44. At the end of March, when the tomato-rustling incident occurred, they were even higher.

At restaurants and hamburger chains, tomatoes have gone from being 5 percent of a burger's cost to more like 15 percent. In March, Wendy's told patrons that tomatoes would be served only by request. Wendy's spokesman Denny Lynch said it was more concerned about the recent poor quality of tomatoes than the jump in price.

Why the poor quality? Why the price? Freezing temperatures hit the tomato growing regions of Florida, Texas and Mexico almost simultaneously, decimating crops. California largely was spared, but its tomatoes are used more for paste and other processed products than for slapping down between two buns.

Tomato Prices Make You So Mad You Want to Throw....

In the past two weeks, some tomato prices have come down, says grower Spencer: Prices for his Roma tomatoes remain high at $32 a box, but prices for round tomatoes have dropped from the mid $20s back down into the teens.

What's Your Beef?

Says Wendy's Lynch: "Tomatoes are back in supply, because Mother Nature since March 24 has come back and warmed up the Earth again." Consumers, he says, can stop worrying now about $5 tomatoes and start worrying about something else: ground beef.

The next commodity to spike in price, he says, will be ground beef and beef in every other form.

"Ground beef has been going up, and it still is. That's going to be a far bigger issue." The increase isn't being driven by one thing but by many simultaneously: Floods in Australia have hurt beef exports to the U.S.. Feed corn costs are up. So is the cost of gasoline for transporting cattle. "Each one is having its impact," he says. "It hasn't shown up in burger prices yet." But he's expecting it will.

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