Orange juice sellers are dealing with a citrus shortage by duping US shoppers

Living through a juice shortage.
Living through a juice shortage.
Image: Reuters/Gary Cameron
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The major US citrus companies pulled a fast one on shoppers, and nobody seemed to notice or care.

Wrestling with a seasonal shortage of grapefruits and oranges, some of the biggest players in juice—including Tropicana and Minute Maid—decided to downsize the bottles they ship off to many grocery stores but keep their price the same. So instead of the standard 59-ounce carafe, shoppers were picking up 52-ounce carafes and paying the same price as before. The change in bottle size mostly affected not-from-concentrate orange juice products, the most popular type sold in the US, according to The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.

Good news for the citrus companies: People bought the same number of bottles, an indication that, even if they noticed the change, they were still eager to stock up on OJ.

Florida citrus growers have experienced a rough stretch of years. As they try to figure out a way to successfully combat a parasitic grove-killing phenomenon called “citrus greening,” growers must also contend with annual weather events, such as hurricanes, that can wipe out harvests in a single swoop.

Meanwhile, shoppers in grocery stores are, if even at a slow pace, trending away from juices. State economists project growers to sell about 386 million gallons of orange juice this season (November through April), down from about 411 million gallons last season—a 6% drop. Much of that is attributable to people’s growing concern over the high sugar content of orange juice.

That said, between shoppers’ willingness to pay the same price for smaller carafes could help offset some of those losses. In addition, the next few months should be a boom time for US orange juice sellers: As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year, the winter flu season in America has traditionally been especially kind to the orange juice market (paywall) as sick people grab for the gallons when they crave the perceived benefits of vitamin C. This past February, sales of orange juice spiked near 1% nationwide compared to the previous year, thanks most likely to an especially bad flu season. More people in the US died because of the flu (paywall) in the 2017-2018 flu season than in any other since the 1970s—in part because less than 40% of Americans went out and got a flu shot, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If this year is a repeat, orange juice might become an unwitting and macabre benefactor.