MIAMI – It’s not a mistake made in the kitchen if your Burger King Whopper arrives minus the usual two slices of tomatoes.

Burger King restaurants across the country have been running out of tomatoes sporadically for the past week, and that’s likely to continue in the wake of the freeze that devastated Florida’s tomato crop last month. The freeze hit growers at a time when the state normally would be supplying tomatoes for the majority of the Eastern seaboard.

The shortages have left fast-food chains, supermarkets and restaurants scrambling.

So far, the tomato shortage is having limited impact on the consumer, but that could change in coming weeks as competition for scarce tomatoes heats up.

Subway’s solution has been to reduce the size of the tomatoes it uses and switch the source from Florida to Mexico. Those moves have kept tomatoes in its restaurants.

But it hasn’t been easy. The company’s purchasing cooperative is chasing down trucks and shifting product among distribution centers to keep up with demand.

Subway restaurant workers find themselves having to play quality control experts, weeding out tomatoes that don’t meet the company’s standards.

”You order 12 trucks, and you get eight,” said Jan Risi, president and chief executive of Subway’s Independent Purchasing Cooperative, which is based in Kendall, Fla. ”When you ask, ‘Where are the others?’ the answer is, ‘They’re on the way.’ The supply is sketchy at best.”

Although grocery stores such as Publix, Winn-Dixie and Whole Foods haven’t run out, counters are no longer piled high with fresh, juicy fruit straight from Florida fields. Instead, the supply is low, many of the tomatoes are traveling from Mexico, and it’s not uncommon to see bruised or overripe fruit on the counter.

”While our displays may not be as full, we’re getting enough to get us through each day,” said Russ Benblatt, Florida spokesman for Whole Foods, which is sourcing most of its tomatoes in Mexico. ”We’re having to look to other sources in warmer climates, which is a strange thing in Florida.”

But the shortage comes with a price. What’s left of the Florida tomato crop had jumped to a wholesale price of $23.95 to $25.95 per 25-pound box Friday. That’s nearly twice the normal average price.

Trucking tomatoes from Mexico to Florida also is more expensive. So far, retailers and restaurants say they are absorbing most of those costs rather than passing them on to consumers.

Traditional Florida round tomatoes were selling at Publix on Monday for $2.39 per pound, while plum tomatoes from Mexico were on sale for $1.29 per pound.

”This was an unforeseen circumstance, and if we can absorb the costs on our end, we want to help our customers as much as possible,” said Kim Jaeger, South Florida spokeswoman for Publix, which has increased prices to consumers by less than a dime since last year.

Supply problems are likely to continue until Florida’s tomato production returns to normal levels, which may not be until late March or early April.

Continued cold weather is slowing the growth cycle of new tomatoes.

Florida tomato production for the period since the freeze is off about 70 percent compared with the same period last year, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

”Tomatoes are relatively scarce,” said Brown, whose group represents the majority of the state’s tomato growers. ”You’re probably looking at three or four weeks of not a lot of supply. We haven’t seen anything like this in 20 years. We’re just waiting for Mother Nature to give us some better weather to grow some tomatoes.”


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