By Hugo Martín and P.J. Huffstutter
March 5, 2010 | 9:00 p.m.
Because of frigid temperatures in Florida, you might have to enjoy a BLT without the T.
Freezing winter weather in the Sunshine State has wiped out nearly 70% of its tomato crop, sending prices soaring in many parts of the country and forcing fast-food restaurants to ration supplies of the plump, popular fruit.
In California, with a $363-million fresh tomato crop last year, the Florida freeze is being felt to a degree. At a Wendy’s eatery in Santa Clarita, for instance, the staff had taped up a sign near the drive-through menu that broke the bad news: The Florida chill was making tomatoes scarce, at least for the time being.
Inside the restaurant, a customer frowned after biting into a cheeseburger. The only red on the sandwich was from the ketchup.
A representative for Atlanta-based Wendy’s said tomatoes would be included in its meals only at the customer’s request. In Oak Brook, Ill., McDonald’s said the tomato crisis had not changed operations at the restaurant chain. A spokeswoman for Quiznos Sub Shop declined to comment on the tomato chill.
At Ralphs supermarkets, with 258 stores in Southern California, the Florida freeze has had little impact. "We are watching it carefully," said spokeswoman Kendra Doyel. So far, she said, "there has been no effect on prices."
Nationally, most of the smaller tomato varieties have been spared, said Phil Lempert, editor of the Lempert Report, an industry newsletter that focuses on supermarket, restaurant and agricultural trends. The larger tomatoes, such as beefsteaks, have been hardest hit, and in some grocery stores in the Northeast, the price has already doubled on these larger types, he said.
"I’m telling people to pass on the fresh right now, and just pick up a can of crushed tomatoes for your burgers," Lempert said. "They taste better and it’ll be cheaper."
The cold weather began in January, at the height of the tomato harvest season in Florida, the nation’s largest tomato producer.
Last year, the state produced up to 25 million pounds of tomatoes a week. Since the freeze began to wither the tomato plants, Florida has been shipping about 1.1 million pounds per week. In California, much of the fresh tomato harvest gets underway in summer.
"We just don’t have anything right now," said Skip Jonah, a spokesman for the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a trade group in Maitland, Fla.
The shortage has led to wholesale price increases of more than 400%, higher supermarket rates and rationing at fast-food restaurants. The average wholesale price for a 25-pound box of tomatoes is now $30, up from $6.25 last year, Jonah said.
Meteorologists said the depth and length of the latest cold weather were unusual. "Freezes happen maybe once every five years or so in central and southern Florida, where most of the tomatoes are grown," said Dan Kottlowski, a senior meteorologist for the weather service website Accuweather.com. "But they’re usually not this long and not this frequently."
Lempert warned that tomatoes may be the first item in the grocery store to increase in price because of unusually cold weather.
Over the last few weeks, Lempert said, bad weather in South and Central America has caused coffee prices to rise. Orange juice prices have also been affected, as the Florida freeze chilled orange groves. He warned that grain and corn crops — two key commodities used for animal feed and bread products — could be next.
"Come spring, we’re going to see increases in almost every agricultural crop there is," Lempert said. "We often forget that so much of our food comes from the ground. Whether it’s tomatoes, or corn and grain that’s to be fed to livestock, when it’s in short supply, guess what? Prices go up."