RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The tomato has long been a near-obligatory garnishing for just about any Brazilian dish, yet it's becoming the country's apple of discord.
A longer-than-usual rainy season, high fuel prices and superheated demand have combined to send prices for the beloved food soaring, and consumers are seeing red.
Facebook pages have popped up for Brazilians to vent their anger, and some restaurants have even dropped tomato-based dishes from their menus. Opposition lawmakers pushed grocery carts laden with tomatoes and other pricey fruits and vegetables into the House of Representatives to complain about inflation, while people living near Brazil's southern border are crossing into Argentina and Paraguay to smuggle in tomatoes in defiance of customs laws.
The price of tomatoes has more than doubled over the past year, according to Brazil's IBGE statistics agency. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) now fetches as much as $6.50 at some Rio de Janeiro supermarkets — a hefty sum in a country where the minimum wage is just $339 a month. While the price of a whole range of basic vegetables from carrots to cabbage to potatoes has risen steeply over the past year, only manioc flour, which saw a 140 percent price spike over the past 12 months, has risen more steeply than the tomato.
Clever cartoons and tongue-in-cheek photos on the 'Tomatoes are very expensive' Facebook page cast them as a luxury, Brazil's newest status symbol. 'Five star meal,' reads the caption above a photo of a workaday lunch of breaded meat, rice and salad, crowned by two skimpy tomato slices. 'Want to conquer her love? Give her this,' says a cartoon featuring a shining gold band topped off with a pyramid of juicy red tomatoes.
According to a report in the newspaper O Globo, the online backlash started when an Italian restaurant in Sao Paulo announced that it was holding off on buying fresh tomatoes and suggested clients opt for spaghetti with shrimp sauce instead.
A segment on the Globo television network showed Brazilians stocking up on tomatoes at supermarkets across the border in Argentina. The piece ended with a stern admonishment from a Brazilian customs agent warning that crossing back into Brazil with such 'contraband' could lead to its confiscation.
Vendors and buyers at an outdoor fruit and vegetable market in Rio's Flamengo neighborhood this week had tomatoes on the brain.
Chauffeur Otacilio Cavalcante sorted through a bin of mostly small and yellowish tomatoes, searching for the juiciest and reddest specimens for a special lunchtime treat.
'I've pretty much cut tomatoes out of my diet because at prices like these, who can afford then?' Cavalcante said with a shrug as he picked out four tomatoes destined for a salad. 'I used to eat them all the time, but now they're a just for special occasions. It's crazy.'
At $5 a kilogram, the small bin of tomatoes at vendor Adelina Dias stand garnered precious little attention.
'No one's buying, which is why I only stock half as much as I used to. What's the use if I'm just going to have to cart it away at the end of the day anyway,' she said. 'No one's buying tomatoes but they're all complaining about the prices. They're all crying like a bunch of babies.'
While Brazil's economy grew just 0.9 percent last year, inflation has been steadily creeping up. In March, it hit a cumulated 6.6 percent over the past 12 months, the IBGE statistics agency reported Wednesday. The government had set 6.5 percent as its ceiling target for inflation for all of 2013.
Food is where many Brazilian consumers are feeling inflation the most. The price of the 'cesta basica,' the government-established basket of basic food products, went up in March in nearly all Brazilian state capitals.
In a media stunt aimed at scoring points with constituents up in arms over the rising cost of food, three opposition lawmakers wheeled shopping carts full of fruits and vegetables into the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
'Did you ever see such an expensive tomato,' one of the lawmakers asked the television cameras as he plucked a plump red tomato from the cart.