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The same thing, every spring

Lemons replacing limes as prices skyrocket

More and more often in US diners or taco trucks, customers will be served lemons instead of limes. “They’re too expensive right now,” says taco stand owner Albert Hernandez. “I usually pay $10 to $15 for a case, but right now it’s going for $60 to $80.”

He’s not the only caterer with this predicament. Every spring now for the past four years, taco trucks across Southern California have made the same switch because of escalating lime prices. The citrus gets a sales bump in the United States during Lent.

Their cost, however, historically remained relatively low. It was never more than $20 wholesale for a 20-kg carton. Restaurateurs weathered the temporary hike and home cooks -who pay about 30 to 45 percent more retail at supermarkets- just shrugged. So no one really paid attention to lime prices.

But things changed in 2014.

That year, March prices topped out at $90 per carton, by far the highest price ever seen in the US. The record made the national news as reporters discovered a disturbing fact: 93 percent of the United States lime supply now comes from Mexico.

And parts of Mexico seem to be plagued by endless drug wars, especially in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, the centre of Mexico’s lime industry. High prices are now a regular part of the game.

In 2016, the highest monthly wholesale price paid was $48 for a carton in April; 2015 was $40 in March; last year, they topped out at $26 in February — but taco stand owners still switched over to lemons.

According to lataco.com, this year has been the worst since 2014. Heavy rainfall and cold weather in Veracruz devastated the lime crop, dropping production by at least 50 percent and raising prices to $50 a case.

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