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Prices of produce favorites like tomatoes and peppers are soaring, and retailers say bad weather in Florida and California is a culprit.

Hurricanes in Florida, and high heat followed by heavy rains on the West Coast over the past couple of months have affected the quality -- and in some stores the quantity -- of produce for sale, retailers and industry watchers say.

Tops Markets and its sister chain, Giant of Carlisle, Pa., are buying green peppers from suppliers for about three times as much as last year, said Jeff Beaulieu, vice president of produce and floral for Giant.

Roma and grape tomatoes' wholesale prices are also up 300 percent from last year, and the retailer is also facing higher costs for citrus such as grapefruit, due to lower yields.

But not all of the higher costs is being passed on to shoppers. Instead, he said, customers are paying about 35 percent to 40 percent more than the typical retail price.

Beaulieu and others in the industry say supermarkets are trying to strike a balance between charging more to reflect their higher costs, without charging so much that customers walk away from the items.

Bad weather is a fact of life for growers, but this time, disruptive weather struck two key markets -- Florida and California -- around the same time, causing a more extensive impact. "When you add it all together, it's kind of an unprecedented situation in the produce arena," Beaulieu said.

While Tops and Giant are trying to adequately stock the produce aisles, the stores won't relax their quality standards just to ensure items will be available, he said. "Rather than disappoint a customer, we'd rather not have it."

Beaulieu said he is hopeful that supplies of some items will start to return to normal in about a month, as growers catch up. In the meantime, stores have posted signs explaining the situation to customers.

Heading into Thanksgiving, Beaulieu said he views the biggest supply problems as tomatoes, Florida citrus, and vegetables from California, such as cauliflower, broccoli and iceberg lettuce.

But not all produce has been affected, he said. Root vegetables, such as potatoes and yams, are in good shape.

Wegmans has also been keeping its customers informed about the price increases, through its advertising and in-store signs, said Ann McCarthy, a Wegmans spokeswoman.

"We want to make sure customers know the pricing situation can change daily," she said. The chain has been absorbing some of the cost increases to keep prices down for customers, she added.

McCarthy noted that the price changes tend to be specific to certain commodities. For instance, its grape and cherry tomatoes have been impacted by the weather, but other tomatoes it sells, which are grown in greenhouses, have not been affected.

Plus, she said, some crops can rebound faster than others -- tomatoes, for example, are easier to replace than a damaged grapefruit tree.

For the produce most significantly impacted by the price hikes, she said, customers can always consider options like heading to the frozen-food aisle instead.

Matthew Enis, a writer for Supermarket News, noted that while Florida is famous for oranges and grapefruit, it is also a crucial tomato-growing state. And while the hurricane winds caused significant damage, the heavy rains that accompanied Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan also delayed the planting of some crops.

Produce supply problems are also affecting small, independent retailers such as Budwey's, a supermarket in North Tonawanda.

The store is paying $40 to $50 for a case of peppers, compared to the usual $15 per case, said Frank Bellina, produce manager. At the retail level, customers are paying $2.59 per pound, instead of the usual 98 cents, he said.

Similarly, shoppers are paying about $1 per pound more for tomatoes, he said. But shoppers have been understanding, Bellina said. "The customers are responding not too bad because they're hearing about it on the news."

"It's been tough," he said. "It's really hard. But we do the best we can."


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