Tomato Prices Surge Higher for Second Time in Three Months

Growers blame a virus that has cut harvests in half, but government officials dispute the claim.

David Bachar

The price of tomatoes, which surged higher after a hot, dry summer and then retreated, is climbing higher again just three months later because of a virus that is taking a heavy toll on the local crop.

The price of a kilogram of tomatoes in the wholesale market on Wednesday pushed past the 10 shekels (about $2.50) mark on Wednesday to 10.50. In September they reached roughly those levels, but only briefly before settling back at 7.50 to 8 shekels.

Before the latest increase, they had been selling wholesale for as little as six shekels, but last week they climbed to 8.20.

Growers attribute the sudden surge in prices to a virus that began spreading in tomato patches in the summer, which has since cut the harvest by about half of last year’s take. Many growers said they were going to plant now in open fields, where the virus spreads more slowly, instead of in hothouses, but that will only help with next spring’s harvest.

The full impact of the price increases had yet to reach supermarket shelves as of Wednesday. At two leading food retailers – Supersol and Mega in the City – tomatoes were still selling for 8.90 and 9.90 a kilo, respectively, and at the discount chain Victory they were retailing for 7.90. But in produce stores and neighborhood groceries prices were reaching 12 to 15 shekels on average.

Discount retailers like Victory said they were selling tomatoes at a loss, which means that prices will soon be raised. Retail executives criticized the Agriculture Ministry for not extending a temporary exemption it had issued in September on tariffs and quotas on tomato imports.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel had lifted quotas and rescinded tariffs of 1.26 shekels a kilo on tomatoes during the previous crisis to allow imports into Israel from Jordan, Turkey and other countries, but the order is due to expire in another two weeks.

“When I want to buy from local farmers I contend with a shortage, so I don’t understand why the Agriculture Ministry would reimpose tariffs suddenly when tomatoes are selling for more than 10 shekels a kilo, and it’s clear that the supermarket chains will pass on the cost to consumers,” said Rami Levy, founder and CEO of the eponymous supermarket chain.

The Agriculture Ministry told TheMarker it was still deliberating whether to extend quota and tariff exemptions. But officials said imports would only be profitable for importers so long as wholesale prices remained above 7.50-8 shekels a kilo, and in practice there had been very little importing in the past several weeks.

Ministry sources disputed growers’ claims that a widespread virus or recent cold weather had sharply reduced smaller harvests, saying the decline was only a few percentage points.