A big jump in the price of oranges and orange juice is expected in the wake of severe freezing weather that tonight gripped Florida's normally temperate citrus belt for the second evening in a row.
Temperatures were expected to drop into the teens again in the central and northern parts of Florida which produce 80 per cent of the country's total orange crop and supply an estimated 95 per cent of the fruit that goes into orange juice and concentrate.
While a spokesman for the Florida Citrus Mutual, a group representing 16,000 growers, said there was "every likelihood" that damage could reach 30 per cent of the crop as it did in 1962 when a similar freeze hit, other experts said it would take several days before the extent of crop loss could be pinpointed.
Today several major processors of orange juice, including Tropicana and Coca Cola's Minute Maid unit, announced they had temporarily stopped taking new orders as they assessed their inventories of concentrate and waited for damage reports.
And the Florida Citrus Commission, which just last week unveiled a major new promotional campaign to boost orange juice consumption because the prospects of another record crop bad caused prices to plumment to their losest levels since 1970, hastily withdrew $3.1 million in newspaper and television advertising extolling Florida orange juice.
Futures contracts for orange juice concentrate quickly moved up the allowable one day limit of three cents per pound on the New York Cotton Exchange again today, but there were few sellers and 3300 purchase bids, were unsatisfied at the close.
The price of the near contract on the commodity exchange rose to 48.4 cents per pound of orange concentrate and was expected to continue rising for the next few days, depending on how much damage has been sustained. Some commodity analysts predicted that the price eventually could top the record 75 cents recorded at the end of 1968 if it turns out that more than 30 per cent if the crop is lost.
Ironically, orange juice futures price had dropped a current contract lows of 37.5 cents a pound only a week ago after the Department of Agriculture released a report predicting a Florida orange harvest of 219 million boxes, up a hefty 18 per cent over the previous 12 months which was also a record year.
While the prices of many food commodities like sugar, wheat, vegetable oil and, most recently, coffee have soared in recent times, year after year of record corps have made oranges one of the few remaining real food bargains left for consumers. And fresh orange juice has been selling for less than equivalent volumes of soft drinks or most other beverages.
Facing what appeared to be a glut, orange juice processors instituted special promotional prices for concentrate last month. And many grocery chains up to today have been featuring special on orange juice concentrate of six 8 oz. cans for $1, or about 17 cents for a can.
Now, with the freeze, market observers today said that the price of a 6 oz. can, which becomes one-and-one-half pints of juice when water is added, will probably rise to 25 cents or perhaps even 30 cents.
Managers of several local supermarkets, interviewed late yesterday, said they had orange juice supplies that would last from a few days to two weeks.
A spokesman for Giant Food, Inc., one of the two largest food chains in metropolitan Washington, said there was no shortage of orange juice products yesterday. He noted that during a similar freeze period in 1962, processors had withheld their products for several days to assess damage but without any subsequent impact in terms of higher consumer prices.
Prices for fresh oranges were meanwhile hiked between 15 and 25 per cent today by Sealed Sweet Growers, a major shipper of fresh citrus based in Tampa, Fla., and these increases were expected to spread quickly.
Expectations were that tonight's freeze would do more damage than that of the previous evening because temperatures did not rise much above freezing in central Florida during the day, and the onset of the freeze was anticipated to be earlier and the duration longer.
However, the record cold weather front that has swept through most of the East and South during the last few days is not very wide at the point it crosses Florida and weather forecasters say that more normal temperatures will return by Friday.
Harry Whittaker, a statistican in Florida's Department of Agriculture cautioned that despite what looked like a pretty bad frost, said it was "extremely premature" to make damage estimates based on past experience.
"It is extremely difficult to equate this with prior freezes because the physical conditions are different," said Whittaker. "The tree conditions are much better now than in prior freezes, the soil mositure is superb and the condition of fruit on the trees is very mature and firm," he added, noting that about 20 per cent of this year's crop had already been harvested.
Estimates of actual losses from the freeze will have to wait until several days after the cold weather passes and samples are taken to see how much dehydration has occurred as a result. Even though an orange partially loses moisture as a result of the freezing weather, one analyst pointed out that it still may be possible to salvage it for use in juice concentrates where quality standards are not as high.