Thu, May 01, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Lime prices leave sour taste

Citrus disease in Florida, drug cartels in Mexico and bad weather are the perfect storm of circumstances that have led to the ‘Great Green Citrus Crisis’

AP, LOS ANGELES

Green gold.

Photo: bloomberg

Every time a bartender at trendy Los Angeles fusion eatery Luna Park squeezes a shot of lime into a drink these days, owner Peter Kohtz says he winces a little.

Luna Park, known for its large selection of craft cocktails, is one of thousands of restaurants from coast to coast that have fallen victim to the Great Green Citrus Crisis of 2014 — a severe shortage of limes that has meant that the fruit has skyrocketed in price in recent weeks.

A case of 200 or so fetches between US$80 and US$130 now, up from about US$15 last year — the result of a perfect storm of circumstances from citrus disease that struck Florida in 2001 and wiped out most lime groves to the increasing reach of drug cartels to disrupt supplies in Mexico, the biggest US supplier.

The cost might not seem like that big of a deal until one realizes that it’s lime juice that’s squeezed into every margarita, mojito or mai tai. It’s also lime that’s chopped up and mixed with fresh fish to create ceviche. It’s lime, mixed with avocado, that makes up guacamole — a mainstay at every Mexican restaurant.

“It’s just one of those things that you take for granted. You never really think about it because it’s always there,” said Kohtz, noting his bartenders squeeze an entire lime’s worth of juice into most specialty drinks.

So far, the price spike doesn’t seem to have been passed on widely to consumers, according to industry officials, but people are beginning to notice it in other ways.

Alaska Airlines stopped putting limes in in-flight beverages a couple of weeks ago. At a recent luncheon meeting of the California Restaurant Association’s board of directors, association spokeswoman Angie Pappas said limes were noticeably absent from the buffet bar, which featured Mexican food.

One of the luncheon attendees, a Southern California restaurateur, told her he is offering a free appetizer to any customer who brings in a bag of limes from their backyard tree. In Phoenix, the Arizona Republic reports that a bar and restaurant group is offering a free cocktail, glass of wine or beer to anyone who brings in 5 pounds of limes.

Which raises the question, if limes grow on backyard trees in Los Angeles and Phoenix, why are they so expensive? Because they don’t really grow well enough in most of the US to be produced commercially, says Jonathan Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida’s horticultural sciences department.

Until 2001, Crane said, Florida produced half of all the limes consumed in the US. But then a devastating citrus canker outbreak led officials to order almost all of Florida’s lime groves destroyed and the industry never recovered.

Mexico began producing more than 90 percent of the limes now consumed in the US.

In most of California, the weather isn’t warm or humid enough to produce commercial quality limes, and the state has only a few hundred acres in production near the Mexican border.

DRUG CARTELS

Mexico’s crop, meanwhile, was hit by a myriad of problems this year, including flooding in some areas and interference from the Knight Templer drug cartel, which jacked up prices by disrupting deliveries and shaking down farmers.

Like American mobsters, the drug cartel that controls much of the Mexican state of Michoacan where both limes and marijuana grow in abundance, has been muscling in on legitimate businesses.

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