(Feb. 5) Cooler weather plus December flooding in Panama and Costa Rica have reduced banana supplies heading into late winter, but shippers anticipate meeting demand.

Estimates of losses from the floods range from 5 million boxes to 15 million boxes. The U.S. imports about 200 million boxes of bananas annually, said Tim Debus, vice president of the International Banana Association, Alexandria, Va.

Debus said he anticipates a 5 million box reduction. But in a recent letter to investors, Cyrus Freidheim Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Chiquita Brands International Inc., Cincinnati, said production in 2003 could be reduced by 10 million to 15 million boxes.

“We are anticipating a net reduction in fruit availability,” Freidheim said. “However, we believe we will be able to continue meeting all core customer requirements.”

Besides fewer bananas, buyers may see slightly reduced sizing because of the cooler, wetter weather.

“With cooler weather, bananas can be smaller,” said John Loughridge, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla. “It becomes more of a challenge for us to meet our Del Monte specification.”

Debus said bananas have no industry specification in terms of size. However, individual companies have their own specifications. On the positive side, Debus said quality of bananas appears to be good with most fruit being blemish free.

Also, bananas are not limited to the two countries having the worst of the weather. Bananas are also shipped from Guatemala, Colombia and Ecuador.

Loughridge said Del Monte’s size and diversified growing base allows the company to mitigate problems caused by poor weather. Chiquita reported that it purchased fruit from Ecuador to partially replace banana volume lost in the floods.

Also banana supplies are typically lower at this time of the year, so the situation this season is not considered too far out of the norm.

However, because of the cooler weather and flooding in Panama and Costa Rica, supplies will be tighter and prices higher for the next few months, Loughridge said.

Prices for bananas have not yet shown a major change because of the tighter supplies. Debus said he does not expect a major change in prices.

Banana prices hold fairly steady because demand is always there, he said.

The Federal-State Market News Service reported a steady market for bananas on Feb. 4, with 40-pound cartons selling at a f.o.b. price of $11-13 a carton.

One year ago on the same date bananas sold for $10-11.50 f.o.b. per 40-pound carton. Earlier this season on Jan. 3, bananas sold for $13-14 f.o.b. for a 40-pound carton.

The Jan. 3 prices showed initial impact of the flooding in Costa Rica and the Atlantic coast of Panama. The floods damaged many farms, according to reports.

Chiquita estimates that the banana industry as a whole lost production of 2 million to 3 million boxes through the end of 2002. Losses caused by the flooding reached about $5 million by year’s end, Chiquita reported.

As for banana demand, Loughridge said he expects normal patterns of demand during winter and spring.