Americans Paying More for Produce After January Freeze Hurts Florida Crop

Restaurants and grocery stores see produce shortage after January chill.

ByABC News
February 24, 2010, 12:59 PM

Feb. 24, 2010— -- In restaurants, grocery stores and on kitchen tables, Americans are feeling the effects of Florida's freakish cold weather. It has sent the price of tomatoes soaring.

The problem started in mid-January, when a record freeze wiped out nearly 80 percent of the state's tomato crop. The weather has stayed cold, and central Florida could see temperatures dip back into the 30s Thursday.

This week, businesses across the food industry started running out of tomatoes. At some Burger King restaurants across the country, you can still get your burger "your way" with onion and pickles, but tomatoes might be temporarily unavailable.

In a statement to ABC News, Burger King suggested it may skip tomatoes if they aren't good enough.

Burger King's Senior Analyst of Communications, Denise Wilson wrote, "There have been some spot outages of tomatoes in the Burger King system as a result of the severe weather conditions that recently affected tomato crops in the Southeastern U.S. We are working with our suppliers and distributors to closely monitor the situation and minimize these outages. We will continuously resupply Burger King restaurants with tomatoes that meet our standards as they become available. Our guests are being notified of temporary outages by signage in the individual restaurants."

Florida Shortage Causes Companies to Import Tomatoes

For restaurants and grocery stores eager to keep their shelves stocked, managers have to look for them outside the United States.

"The price of tomatoes is going up right now because we are shipping product from Mexico," said Brenda Reid, a public relations employee for Publix, the large supermarket chain with stores located across the South.

Since the January freeze, vegetable prices have doubled, even as the vegetables have gotten smaller. Typical of the price shift, was the doubling of cost of tomatoes at the West Side Market in New York City. Customers are now paying $1.89 a pound for tomatoes that were just $0.99 per pound a month ago. In the last week alone, prices have risen by $0.60 a pound.

Tomatoes aren't the only produce affected -- peppers, green beans, strawberries, squash and eggplant crops are all having problems. Customers complain the produce is either too ripe or not ripe enough.

Small Businesses Stung by Higher Produce Costs

While the produce shortage has hit big chains like Burger King, it's also hurting small businesses, including Bonnie Bambinelli's small Italian restaurant north of Atlanta.

"It was $19 a case, and now it's $39 a case," Bambinelli told ABC News. "It's a big difference for us 'cause we go through a lot of tomatoes."