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Tomatoes Getting Sliced from Menus

NEW YORK -- A shortage of tomatoes from weather-battered Florida is forcing restaurants and supermarkets to ration supplies amid soaring prices for America's most popular, fresh vegetable, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Fast-food restaurant chains such as Wendy's have stopped automatically including tomatoes in sandwiches; now customers have to know to ask for them.

And even then, consumers might not get what they usually do. At Lloyd's, a white-tablecloth restaurant across the street from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, signs went up this week warning that only plum tomatoes are available.

Sandwich chain Subway is continuing to offer tomatoes on its sandwiches but is using different varieties to ensure it has enough on hand.

Fresh tomatoes are in short supply because of the unusual spell of freezing temperatures that hugged Florida in January. The cold temperatures that dented citrus production also destroyed roughly 70 percent of the tomato crop in Florida, which is the largest source of U.S.-grown fresh tomatoes this time of year, the Journal reported.

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a Maitland, Fla., trade group, said Tuesday that a 25-pound box of tomatoes was trading for $30, compared to $6.45 a year ago. Some restaurants have been told they would have to spend up to $45 for a box of tomatoes in recent days.

"Doesn't matter though, because there isn't anything to sell," said Brown, who calculated the state's shipments are running at about 30 percent of normal.

Prices of fresh tomatoes are expected to fall sharply by April as farmers in southern Florida begin harvesting a new tomato crop, which so far appears to be normal.

According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, about one-third of fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, bell peppers and sweet corn consumed in the U.S. this time of year come from Florida farms. About two-thirds of this type of produce is imported, mostly from Mexico. In recent weeks, weekly vegetable shipments from Mexico to the U.S. have soared by as much as 50 percent over year-ago levels, according to the USDA.

So far, many grocers are absorbing most of the tomato price increase rather than passing it along to customers. Supervalu Inc., headquartered in Minneapolis, said it is holding price increases on its fresh tomatoes to less than 5 percent. "At this point, we're anticipating that situation to stabilize in mid-April," a Supervalu spokeswoman said.

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