(UPDATED COVERAGE, 2 p.m. Jan. 14) Consumers are feeling the effects of Florida’s freeze with higher prices and decreased selection of strawberries, and tomatoes, bell peppers and other vegetables —  and retailers say it could be weeks before supplies fully return to normal.

Retail prices for some items, including tomatoes and bell peppers, are expected to increase “significantly” at the majority of Publix Super Markets Inc. stores in coming weeks as the freeze tightens supplies, company spokeswoman Maria Brous said. Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix operates 1,012 stores in Florida and four other states in the Southeast U.S.

A side effect of the freeze could boost fruits and vegetables from alternative sources, such as California and Mexico, and possibly overseas, Brous said.

“Higher retail prices can be expected over the next couple of weeks,” Brous said. “We’re expecting to see price increases from our suppliers, and those increases in turn are passed on to retail, unfortunately.”

Publix stores in Atlanta on Jan. 13, for example, were selling green bell peppers for $1.49 a pound, UglyRipe tomatoes at $2.69 a pound, organic iceberg lettuce for $1.99 and Florida tangerines at $3 for two, according to the company’s Web site.

Record cold gripped much of Florida this week. In Immokalee, a key growing area for tomatoes, green beans, bell peppers and squash, temperatures fell to 27 degrees in the early-morning hours Jan. 11.

Some growers estimate up to 60% of the area’s winter tomato crop has been lost, while much of the mature green bean acreage has also been destroyed. Citing insufficient supplies to establish a market, the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t report Florida tomato prices on Jan. 13.

“There will be short supplies on bell peppers and squash for the next couple of weeks,” Jim Monteith, sales manager for Immokalee-based Pacific Collier Fresh Co., said Jan. 11. “There will be huge gaps for the next couple of months.”

Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., expects Florida’s tomato crop to be a fraction of normal production this year.

“Anything from Immokalee north looks like it is just a done deal,” Weisinger said. “I have a feeling that a lot of this that was grown by some of the Naples growers for the winter is also done. Any plants that had been open, that had been picked at least once and didn’t have the leaf protection, were destroyed.”

The freeze effects will be felt thousands of miles north of Florida, grocers say. Dean Balzum, director of produce for Kowalski’s Markets in Woodbury, Minn., said he’s been unable for brief periods in recent weeks to buy fruits or vegetables from his usual suppliers.

“We’ll find categories — berries, for instance — where there have been gaps where we just can’t get any for a day or two,” Kowalski said.

Reduced supplies because of the freeze also make it difficult to run promotions, he said.
“It makes ad writing a tough job,” Kowalski said.

St. Patrick’s Day revelers will even see an effect from the freeze, which slowed Florida cabbage growth, Publix’s Brous said. “We’ll be seeing higher prices heading toward St. Pat’s Day” for cabbage, she said.

Additionally, much of Florida’s potato crop was damaged or destroyed, Brous said. While citrus damage “doesn’t appear as extreme,” Publix still expects smaller yields for oranges and tangerines, she said.

Mexico/Canada effects?

The effects of the cold were also being felt south of the border, said Kevin Batt, greenhouse category manager for Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group, which markets product for Guadalajara, Mexico-based Divemex SA.

Pepper sizes in particular had been affected by cold weather in the Culican growing region, Batt said.

“There are a lot more smaller bells, No. 2s,” he said.

Also, if the green bell market spikes, more peppers initially targeted for colored bell markets could be harvested early, potentially meaning fewer colored bells down the road, Batt said.

In terms of demand, if Florida’s freeze-related vegetable losses are severe enough, markets for Mexican vegetables coming through Nogales could strengthen significantly, Batt said.

“From a market perspective, everyone’s kind of holding their breath,” he said.

Whether the freeze impact reaches Canada, another big market for Florida produce, remains unclear.

“It’s too early to tell what the effects of the cold snap on prices or supplies will be, if any,” said Krista Pawley, a Toronto-based spokeswoman for the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors.

In the short term, prices probably won't be affected much because the council’s member companies buy most of their produce through previously negotiated deals, she said.

The trade group represents wholesalers and retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Sobeys Inc., that account for 85% of the food distributed in Canada.

Eastern Editor Doug Ohlemeier, Retail Editor Pamela Riemenschneider and Markets Editor Andy Nelson contributed to this article.