A new pricing study finds that American consumers are facing a "tomato cliff" that will result in huge premiums for fresh tomatoes at the supermarket, or else they will be forced to go without fresh tomatoes, if the U.S. terminates a trade agreement with Mexico at the request of a group of Florida growers.

If Mexican tomatoes are forced to withdraw from the U.S. market, prices for popular varieties such as hothouse tomatoes on the vine would double from national average of about $2.50 a pound to nearly $5 a pound, and grape tomatoes would rise to nearly $5.50 a pound, according to an economic impact analysis by the Nielsen Perishables Group for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA).

"A 'tomato cliff' is fast approaching," said FPAA President Lance Jungmeyer. "For all practical purposes, time is running out for the U.S. Department of Commerce to reach an agreement with Mexican growers on the floor price for imported fresh tomatoes."

"If we don't see a deal soon to continue the tomato suspension agreement, U.S. consumers will face markedly higher tomato prices," Jungmeyer added. "It's a supply and demand market and Florida growers are trying to keep Mexican supply out of the market, which will mean higher prices at the grocery store."

Consumers already will see expendable income for food drop this year, due to the continuing drought in the Midwest that has the Federal government predicting food prices to be 3-4 percent higher this summer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

The study team, led by Dr. Tim Richards, Morrison Chair professor of Agribusiness at Arizona State University, included in their analysis the historical impact of a prolonged freeze in February 2011 that greatly reduced volumes of Mexican tomatoes. "We found that if Mexican imports are excluded from the U.S. market, retail prices during the December-May timeframe can be expected to rise by 97.9 percent for hothouse round, 96.9 percent for hothouse vine, 61.3 percent for snacking, 217.2 percent for Roma, and 52.1 percent for field tomatoes," Richards said in his report.

The result is likely to be an overall decrease in U.S. consumer demand for fresh tomatoes during the winter season, and quite possibly on into the spring-summer growing season, Richards added.

"If Mexican tomatoes are kept from the market, retailers will be forced to raise prices to consumers," Jungmeyer said. "If the price doubles, demand will surely drop, and there may be permanent damage to American consumers' love affair with tomatoes," he said.

"This is like playing Russian roulette with America's pocketbook," Jungmeyer added.

Tomatoes recently became the No. 1 purchased fresh vegetable in the U.S., according to Fresh Trends consumer data. Mexican growers supply over 3 billion pounds of popular tomato varieties annually to U.S. distributors and wholesalers that in turn supply supermarkets and restaurants. The greenhouse and field-grown Mexican varieties account for more than half of the U.S. winter supply of fresh tomatoes. Mexican tomatoes make up nearly 43 percent of fresh tomatoes available from June through November.

More extreme winter weather, as many parts of the United States have experienced in recent years including Florida agricultural areas, only adds to the risks associated with limiting imports. "There is a very real possibility that a weather calamity could leave shelves nearly bare of tomatoes," Jungmeyer said.

"In three of the last five winter growing seasons, Florida has been hit by hurricanes or freezes that seriously hurt tomato supply," Jungmeyer said. "Aside from Mexico, Florida is the only viable option for winter tomatoes. With Hurricane Sandy, we have seen that weather patterns have become more erratic. We can only assume that Florida will continue to have its tomato fields hurt by weather at the most inopportune times."

The growth in popularity of fresh Mexican tomatoes has taken place as a result of a trade agreement between the two countries that has been in place for 16 years with no disputes and two negotiated increases in the price "floor" for imported tomatoes. The agreement has been good for American consumers and growers.

In September 2012, the Commerce Department announced plans to terminate a suspension agreement that has been in place since 1996 after receiving complaints from a group of Florida growers.

More than 350 letters have been sent to Commerce from a variety of U.S. business, retail and food-producing organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, National Restaurant Association, Food Marketing Institute, and numerous U.S. agricultural producer groups, expressing support for retaining the U.S.-Mexico tomato trade pact.