A sudden and unprecedented shortage of limes has sent nationwide wholesale prices soaring from around $25 for a 40-pound carton in early February to more than $100 today, panicking lovers of Mexican food and drinks — and the restaurant and bar owners who cater to them. The culprits are weather, disease and even drug cartels.
I cringe every time customers ask for limes,” said Armando De La Torre Jr., an owner of two Guisados restaurants in Los Angeles, adding that the price spike cost his family at least $2,000 in the past month alone.
“We really don’t have much choice except to pay up,” said Phil Ward, owner of Mayahuel, a Manhattan bar that specializes in tequila and mescal. “A margarita has to be made with lime juice. We would never use lemons, or bottled lime juice, which is pasteurized and has a different flavor.”
In the 1970s Americans consumed an average of less than half a pound per person of limes a year, most of them grown in southern Florida. Immigration from tropical countries, and the growing taste for their foods, helped raise consumption to over two and a half pounds today. Meanwhile, low-priced competition from Mexico, the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and an eradication campaign to fight canker disease in 2002-06 wiped out the Florida groves.
Mexico is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of limes, and provides some 95 percent of United States supplies. Generally, the lime harvest is smaller and prices are higher from January through March, but in November and December severe rains knocked the blossoms off lime trees in many areas, reducing lime exports to the United States by two-thirds. California, with just 373 acres, is now the largest domestic lime source — but it produces less than 1 percent of national consumption, and its season is late summer and fall, so it’s no help right now.
Weather hasn’t been the only culprit on the lime shortage. criminal organizations have used violence and extortion to exacerbate the situation. The ability of organized crime to impact lime prices highlights unintended consequences tied to the U.S.-led war on drugs.
The Knights Templar, which is based in the lime producing epicenter of Michoacán, is a splinter group of La Familia Michoacana, the drug cartel dismantled by law enforcement around 2011.
“Breaking up major organized crime groups into smaller pieces does not necessarily make them more manageable,” said Shirk.
In recent years the group has pushed into kidnapping, human trafficking and extortion of various business owners, including those involved in lime exports.
Cartel members have demanded a certain percentage of orchard owners’ lime shipments, threatening to burn down their farms, rape their daughters or kill their children.
Business owners inside and outside the lime industry have recently pushed back by forming vigilante “self-defense” groups, which have battled the drug cartels in violent shootouts.
The fallout has jacked up prices for U.S. and Mexican consumers and businesses accustomed to celebrating Cinco de Mayo with limes in their beers, margaritas and mojitos.
This years Cinco de Mayo will have a struggle serving margaritas and other lime based drinks. Not only will the restaurants/bars suffer but so will customers. Some bars have increased drink prices by 500%! Others have resorted to less drastic measures by cutting lime juice with lemon, using pre-bottled lime juice, or simply waiting for customers to ask for lime garnishes and charging accordingly.
Did you run into a lime crisis on Cindo de Mayo? Tell us your lime horror story here.