Holy guacamole! Lime prices skyrocket

Disease, weather brings down production

Lizbeth Ventura, 25, shops for limes Tuesday at Tijuana's Mercado de Abastos.
Lizbeth Ventura, 25, shops for limes Tuesday at Tijuana's Mercado de Abastos. — Sandra Dibble

— The price of Mexican limes has been soaring in recent weeks, as heavy rains and a bacterial citrus disease have created a shortage of the sour green fruit — and that has caused no minor commotion in kitchens, bars and restaurants on both sides of the border.

Think margaritas, guacamole, fish tacos and steaming bowls of beef soup: Where would they be without limes?

“Carísimo,” so expensive, muttered Lizbeth Ventura, 25, as she reached into a pile of round, deep-green Key limes Tuesday at Tijuana’s sprawling Mercado de Abastos, an outdoor produce market with multicolored displays of fruits, vegetables and herbs. She was preparing beef with lime for dinner, she said, and had no choice but to pay the going price of 53.5 pesos per kilo, or about $1.86 per pound.

Prices have also risen sharply in the United States, where the Department of Agriculture reports 98 percent of limes are imported from Mexico.

“I’ve been here 26 years and never seen it this high,” said Jorge Godinez, a buyer at Coast Citrus Distributors in Otay Mesa.

The company is charging retailers $85 for a 35-pound box of Persian limes — compared with about $18 in December. The smaller Key limes, essential for preparing ceviche and a popular seasoning for a wide range of other dishes, are going for $45 to $50 per box, compared with $13 to $16 late last year.

Consumer prices at the Calimax supermarket chain in Tijuana have more than tripled since December, said Roberto Salazar, head of perishables. On Dec. 20, the Key limes, also known as limón Mexicano, were selling for about 51 cents a pound, he said; a month later, the price had risen to $1.17, and today the price is roughly $1.85.

Mexico’s Federal Consumer Protection Bureau, Profeco, reported last week that their inspectors had found instances of limes being sold for more than $2.70 a pound along Mexico’s northern border.

Industry leaders attribute the sharp drop in Mexico’s lime production to a combination of conditions. Among the primary factors are rains last year that affected the major key-lime producing states of Michoacan, Colima, Guerrero and Oaxaca. Another state, Veracruz, produces much of Mexico’s Persian lime crop.

Heavy rains during dry season can not only delay harvests, but also cause rot and fungal disease that harm the fruit, said Kristy Plattner, a citrus analyst at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Another factor that has especially affected production in Colima is the plant disease Huanglongbing, also known as Yellow Dragon or citrus greening disease. Spread by an insect known as the Asian citrus psyllid, the bacterial disease causes bitter, inedible fruit and eventually kills the tree.

A third factor cited in media reports involves allegations by lime growers that they have been forced to pay fees to organized crime and vigilante groups operating in Michoacan, a key winter growing region — characterizations denied by an industry group known as the National System for Lime Production.

“It’s completely untrue,” grower Sergio Ramírez Castañeda, head of the group in Michoacan, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “What I will say is that our final distributors are using this speculation as a way of increasing prices of the product.”

Ramírez said the group is seeing a recovery in production, and expects prices to stabilize during the first part of April.

Mexico’s Agriculture Ministry on Tuesday said it expects a significant increase in limes being available for sale by the second half of April.

In the meantime, consumers are learning to adapt. At Tijuana Tilly’s on Avenida Revolución, the high price of limes has prompted bartenders switch to a lime-flavored powdered margarita mix. Down the street, Carlos de la Torre has replaced the limes at his taco stand with lemons, but he admits it’s not the same.

“Sour is tastier,” del la Torre said, “on seafood, on fish tacos, on beef tacos, on all kinds of tacos.”

A few blocks away, at Tacos Junior, floor manager Cristian Delgado said they have continued using lime to cure seafood in popular dishes such as ceviche and shrimp in aguachile. “The truth is that most of Mexican cooking tastes better with lime,” he said.

Among the customers Monday night were Miriam Morán, a nutritionist, and her husband, Jorge Martínez, an anesthesiologist.

“Limes are part of our basic diet as Mexicans,” Morán said. At home, she prepares limeade several times a week, and frequently uses the fruit to season dishes. “We even use it on beans,” she said.

On this cool late winter night, the couple was preparing to order bowls of seafood soup — seasoned with a few squeezes of lime.

sandra.dibble@utsandiego.com

(619) 293-1716