FLORIDA TOMATOES MAKE A COMEBACK

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Higher-quality tomatoes are becoming more plentiful and affordable, state officials said last week.Tomato harvests planted here after Hurricane Wilma are boosting supplies that had been cut short by the storm."The shortage is ending, quality is improving and prices are falling - and consumers should be benefiting from these developments now," said Charles Bronson, agriculture commissioner

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Higher-quality tomatoes are becoming more plentiful and affordable, state officials said last week.

Tomato harvests planted here after Hurricane Wilma are boosting supplies that had been cut short by the storm.

"The shortage is ending, quality is improving and prices are falling - and consumers should be benefiting from these developments now," said Charles Bronson, agriculture commissioner for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in a statement.

Bronson asked grocery wholesalers, retailers and food-service operators to begin offering state-grown tomatoes at prices that reflect the more abundant supply. Retail grocery prices for fresh tomatoes have hovered around $4 per pound in recent weeks, according to the department.

Though officials were able to source tomatoes from South Florida, Publix Super Markets relied more heavily on suppliers on the West Coast and in Mexico this winter, said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the Lakeland-based chain.

"We're always looking for the top-quality products so we get tomatoes from different parts of the country at different times of the year," she said. "As more of a variety becomes available [in Florida], the prices will start to drop. Publix carries tomatoes at varying price points; some cost 99 cents a pound, while others range between $2 and $3 a pound."

The shortage prompted Wendy's, the Dayton, Ohio-based quick-service restaurant chain, to offer tomatoes with its meals only upon request.

With supplies becoming more abundant, the chain plans to bring tomatoes back shortly, a Wendy's customer-service representative said. "[Customers] can still get tomatoes if they ask for them, but because of the [limited supply] we didn't want to give them to people who might throw them away," the representative said.

The storm required replanting tomatoes in late October, delaying the harvest that's usually reaped from Thanksgiving through January to late January and February, said Terence McElroy, press secretary for the agriculture department.

"We expect prices to go down [initially] and then we'll expect them to drop again," he said. "We're doing our best to reach out to the brokers and buyers for supermarket chains and let them know about the availability and encourage them to look at their quality."

Florida farmers replanted snap beans, Italian beans, squash and some cucumbers. Tomatoes, the state's largest vegetable crop, were hit hardest by the hurricane, McElroy said.