Freeze kills $480 million worth of citrus

Below-freezing temperatures in California create 'a disaster' for the billion-dollar citrus fruit industry - and a squeeze on wallets at the supermarkets.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CNN) -- Approximately $480 million worth of California citrus fruit has been destroyed in four nights of below freezing temperatures that damaged at least 50 percent of the total crop, and catapulted the billion-dollar industry "in the category of a disaster," Bob Blakely of California Citrus Mutual told CNN.

"Officials fear that possibly three-quarters of the citrus crop has been destroyed," said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the California Food and Agriculture department.

Blakely emphasized that these estimates are preliminary and are likely to increase. Definitive values for damages incurred by the industry will be made available by early next week, he added.

About $1 billion of the citrus fruit industry in California is at risk, with at least 93 million cartons of fruit threatened, CCM President Joe Nelsen said.

Plants most at risk include navel and valencia oranges, lemons and mandarin variety fruit, CCM said.

"There is not going to be one supermarket that is not impacted by this disaster," and consumers should expect to see price increases in whole citrus fruits by early next week, Blakely told CNN.

Ninety percent of the citrus fruit sold whole in U.S. supermarkets comes from California, according to CCM. California produces 95 percent of navel oranges and 98 percent of lemons sold in the United States. Processed citrus products, like orange juice, will not be affected because those are not primarily California products.

Significant amounts of the crops were on trees when temperatures hit the tipping point below 28 degrees Fahrenheit, falling into the low 20s and teens in some regions, CCM said.

All of the valencia oranges and mandarin fruits crops could be destroyed and nearly three-quarters of the navel oranges and lemon produce are at risk, it said.

Blakely said the fruit harvested prior to Jan. 12, when this cold snap hit the west coast, "is perfectly fine."

Avocados grown in Ventura County have also been damaged by the record-setting cold weather, but no financial figures related to the impact on that sector are yet available, said Lyle.

The National Weather Service issued freeze warnings to 22 California counties Tuesday. It said the cold snap is from a dry and cold air mass that will remain over northern California for the next few days, with below freezing temperatures a possibility each night.

CCM said that for every 1,000 acres of citrus products lost, the state loses at least $1 million in income and sales tax revenue, and salary and wage withholdings.

In 1998, the California citrus industry suffered a $700 million loss after a three-day freeze in which 85 percent of the crop was lost, according to the CDFA.

Lyle told CNN that "this is a longer freeze event than 1998 and it covers a wider area geographically."

Last Friday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency because of extreme low temperatures.

Coca-Cola (Charts), the owner of Minute Maid orange juice, edged lower in late trade. Tropicana Pure Premium maker PepsiCo (Charts) was up slightly.

- from CNN's Katy Byron

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