Commodities & Futures: Good weather frosts orange juice prices

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THE BOTTOM is falling out of the orange juice futures market, which shot to fame in Trading Places, the 1980s American film starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd.

On the New York Cotton Exchange, frozen concentrated orange juice (FCOJ) futures have touched 16-year lows as the frost- scare season in Florida, the main US producing area, draws to an end with no sign of bad weather.

Prices for FCOJ have tumbled to about 67 cents a pound - less than half those of a year ago and compared with 105 cents two months ago.

The main reason for the slide is that Brazil and Florida, the world's biggest orange producers, are expecting near-record crops.

Brazil, the biggest exporter, is expected to produce about 290 million 90lb boxes and Florida 188 million.

Recession in Western economies has reduced consumer demand for fruit juices, adding to the pressure on prices.

For the US crop, bumper harvests may not be a fluke. After several cold winters damaged Florida crops in the late 1980s, large-scale grove replanting further south in the 'Sunshine State' may mean that crop-destroying, overnight frosts are largely a thing of the past.

Lawrence Eagles, commodities analyst with GNI in London, says state forecasts show Florida's orange output rising nearly 40 per cent in the next 10 years.

This may be offset in part by an orange fungus affecting Brazil's large crop, which could take several years to eradicate. But price prospects remain bleak while US stocks of orange juice concentrate are filling available freezer space, he says.

In Britain, the zesty orange is our third-favourite fruit after apples and bananas. Per person, we ate 8.7lb of oranges in 1991 compared with 14.8lbs of bananas and 21.8lbs of apples.

We import about 385,000 metric tons of oranges a year from a long list of countries with tropical climates, but most come from Israel, Spain, South Africa and Morocco.

Yet research from the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Information Bureau suggests we are lazy in our eating habits, and that our search for the ultimate convenience food is affecting orange consumption.

The so-called 'easy-peelers', or soft citrus varieties, are becoming increasingly popular because their skin is not attached to the fruit, they are less messy than oranges or grapefruits and have few, if any, pips. Mandarin varieties, such as satsumas and clementines, and orange/tangerine crosses with names like tambors and topazes are taking a larger share of the market all the time.

This trend has recently been taken to what some might consider the limit, with the invention of the originally titled 'naked orange'. A South African company is planning to ship pre-peeled oranges, skinned in a spiked drum, to the British market in time to reach supermarket shelves by Easter.

The UK is the fourth-largest orange juice importer in the world and buys most of it in frozen concentrate form from Brazil.

However, according to a study by Rudy Kortbech Olesen, of the International Trade Centre in Geneva, annual consumption of about 18 litres per head is well below many other countries and half that in Germany.

The orange juice market is extremely competitive, and the price slump will make it even more so.

Growers in the US and Brazil are eager to unload their surpluses on export markets such as Europe and, particularly, Japan, where import restrictions have been lifted.

Ordinarily, retail prices for orange juice are sensitive to changes in frozen concentrated orange juice prices, and can respond within four to six weeks.

But a spokesman for Del Monte, the orange juice brand leader in the UK, says British shoppers should not expect to benefit from lower FCOJ prices for some time because of exchange rate movements.

Since FCOJ imports are paid for in dollars, the 25 per cent fall in sterling against the dollar has been expensive for juice packers, and wiped out most of the beneficial effects for consumers.