In a hurry: how cartels, climate and supply chains are driving up lime prices

I started wondering if something was up when I received my second bowl of pho in as many weeks with a slice of lemon on the side. My apartment is on the edge of Chicago’s Little Vietnam stretch, and Nhà Hàng Vietnam restaurant’s pho ga has quickly become my after-work comfort food. Typically, it’s served with a small platter garnished with basil, bean sprouts, a slice or two of jalapeño, and a wedge of lime.

I thought maybe it was just a coincidence of ordering produce until I walked into another Vietnamese restaurant, Pho 888, for takeout and heard a customer asking for a slice of lime. The waiter replied with a sigh, “Sorry, no lime. Only lemon right now.” I asked a few restaurant owners in the neighborhood and they reported the same thing. Limes were apparently impossible to get in bulk – at least at a decent price.

Related: Pho, Menudo, and Old Sober: A Love Letter to Breakfast Soup

I initially thought it was potentially a regional issue, but a friend in Louisville, Kentucky, told me he had a similar conversation with the owner of a Mexican restaurant in town; when I called to confirm, the owner reported that the price of bulk limes had doubled from $75 for a case that usually lasted a week to $150.

In fact, according to an April 1 edition of Fresh Point, a newsletter compiled by Sysco, limes — along with items like strawberries, some mushrooms and watermelons — are on “alert” due to limited availability. This is due, as the bulletin says, “temperatures, high demand and very little rain.”

This is just a taste, however, of the problems plaguing the lime industry right now. The current limited availability of this simple piece of citrus fruit is actually a perfect opportunity to better understand our increasingly global food system – for better or for worse – and what propels or prevents certain ingredients from being readily available. on supermarket shelves.

Nearly 79% of limes sold in the United States are imported from Mexico and, as Mexico’s Servicio de Información Agroalimentaria y Pesquera reported in Mexico in January 2022, prices have tripled from 2021 prices, from 17 pesos to 56 pesos per kilo. .

Some of this is due to natural causes. Lime growers are still reeling from the 2020 droughts and severe flooding in early 2021, according to the Produce Bluebook. This year has brought an unusually cold growing season that literally freezes the growth of limes, rendering them ineligible for sale.

However, another underlying issue with lime availability is the longstanding and complicated cartel tensions in Mexico’s major growing areas.

As The Guardian reported in February, the cartels are imposing increasing controls on growers during the bumper harvest season – in part to fund an escalation of war in the western state of Michoacán where the Cártel’s aggressive expansion of Jalisco Nueva Generación sparked a bitter conflict with a coalition of local groups known as the United Cartels.

“The lime trade is a billion dollar industry and for any criminal group it is very easy and extremely profitable for them to go to the farmers and tell them what they have to pay to protect themselves”, Romain Le Cour, security and violence reduction program officer at the thinktank México Evalúa “It’s classic mafia.”

Additional reports also detail how the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación displaced local producers in 2019, took over operations for themselves, and then abandoned those operations several months later; the effects of this disruption are still being felt today – by farmers, farm workers, importers, and members of the culinary industry, both in Mexico and the United States.

Many restaurants have turned to lemon dishes, such as Nhà Hàng, because it is much more affordable. Meanwhile, bartenders have to adjust how they serve cocktails — especially classic cocktails like daiquiris and mules, which rely on lime.

Some take a page from White Lyan, a now closed but pioneering cocktail bar that had a no-lime daiquiri, made with a science kit combination of powdered citric acid, malic acid, tartaric acid and phosphoric acid, mixed with water and salt. Others, like Eron Plevons of Louisville’s GOLD BAR, rely on homemade “superjuice,” a technique that was perfected by bartender Nickle Morris of Bar Expo.

As Salon reported in 2020, Morris makes the super juice by combining citrus peels, which are usually discarded, with citric and malic acid. After standing for four to eight hours, the mixture is mixed with water and filtered. The resulting super juice can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.

“Superjuice cuts your costs by a third,” Plevon wrote in a Facebook post. “It depends on the volume, but you can get a quart of brilliant citrus juice with 6 lemons or limes. It’s totally worth it. If you buy 18 large limes, you have what you need for the week . [and it] keeps for a week instead of 24 hours.

But for those who don’t have the time or resources to make “fake lime juice” or super juice, their options are probably a sloppy mixture of lemon and bitters or bottled lime juice. . Grocers push this last option quite hard. Dents and Cents, a discount food store in Jackson, Missouri, posted on Facebook: “FYI, there is now a lime shortage. We have a ton of this Realime for just $1.00 a bottle. !”

It’s worth finding a solution, because this isn’t the first lime shortage – the Atlantic reported the “great lime shortage” in 2014 – and with climate change and unpredictable cartel activity, this probably won’t be the last. For now, maybe we’ll switch to drinking our spring G&Ts with a slice of lemon.

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