Mexico’s tomato shortage spikes prices

Bob Moon Oct 4, 2006

BOB MOON: Usually in Mexico, they’ve got plenty of tomatoes all year long — so many they use them in almost everything they eat. But this year, around mid-September, some hurricanes hit the country’s biggest tomato-producing states and wiped out a big part of the harvest.

We all know what happens when there is a shortage of something, and prices have gone way up. Marla Dickerson has been reporting on this story from Mexico City for the Los Angeles Times.

Hi, Marla.

MARLA DICKERSON: Good afternoon, Bob. Thanks for inviting me.

MOON: So, this isn’t a simple matter of just not being able to find your garden variety of produce on the grocery store shelf in Mexico. This is a real staple that we’re talking about.

DICKERSON: That’s right. Mexico produces about 2.2 million tons of tomatoes every year. And more than half of that is consumed right here in Mexico. Tomatoes have been a staple of the Mexican diet since Aztec times. And I’ve done a rough calculation, and I think the average man, woman and child consumes around 25 pounds worth a year. So, it’s a very popular dish here.

MOON: And this is happening just when we’ve been hearing that Mexico’s economy is finally on an upswing. So the timing’s really a problem.

DICKERSON: It’s not great timing. Mexico’s economy through the first half of the year has grown at the fastest pace since 2000. Inflation is a real problem in Mexico in the sense that people here remember the bad old days of hyperinflation and they don’t want a repetition of that. The central bank authorities here have done a great job of bringing inflation down in recent years. As a matter of fact, last year inflation was 3.3 percent. That’s the lowest rate they’ve seen in 30 years. And so this tomato scare was a bit of a shock. I think the folks at the central bank are going to have some decisions to make.

MOON: Give us an idea of just how important a problem this is south of the border. Are we talking about people just doing without tomatoes, or is it that they’re buying tomatoes and scrimping on other parts of their food budgets?

DICKERSON: We’re seeing both. You’ve got some people who, well, for them it’s not a meal without tomatoes. Because, as one economist told me, “If we eat three times a day, we’re going to eat tomatoes three times a day.” It’s a base for soups. It’s the base for your salsa. It’s the topping on your taco. It’s very hard to tell the average Mexican that you’re not going to have tomatoes on your table.

MOON: How much does a pound of tomatoes cost right now, and how does that compare with the average income?

DICKERSON: Bob, it depends on where you buy them. For example, we visited one of the big distribution centers in southeastern Mexico City. Tomatoes there, good-quality ones are selling for about $1 a pound. At Wal-Mart, they’re about $1.40. So, it depends. But anywhere between, let’s say, roughly $1 and $1.50 a pound. That’s triple what it was three weeks ago. That is very, very expensive in a country where 50 percent of the population lives in poverty and where the minimum wage is about $4.30 a day.

MOON: Los Angeles Times writer Marla Dickerson. Thanks very much for joining us today.

DICKERSON: Thanks for inviting me, Bob.

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