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Orange juice sales get a kick from flu fears

The international wave of panic sparked by the spreading H1N1 influenza has citrus growers in Florida struggling to keep straight faces.

Orange juice, both fresh and frozen, has been flying off supermarket shelves at rates that are unprecedented even for flu season, which normally delivers a small boon to producers of the state's trademark fruit when people begin the annual scramble to stave off sickness by chugging vitamin C.

The addition of H1N1 to the mix has caused that boon to balloon beyond expectations, bailing growers out of what was originally forecast to be a dismal economic year.

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"We're seeing probably one of our best seasons in a long time," said Doug Bournique, executive vice-president of the Indian River Growers' Association, which represents 1,000 citrus growers in what has become the oldest and most famous fruit district in Florida.

"The best thing you can ingest to fight off colds and flu - everybody knows it - is vitamin C. … It's nature's best anti-influenza and anti-H1N1 thing you can do. Everybody tells me they're drinking a lot of orange juice and grapefruit juice because of just that issue."

For weeks, as he's cycled through his usual rounds to local utility and economic development meetings, Mr. Bournique said he's fielded a constant stream of comments from people telling him they've deliberately increased their citrus intake in hopes it will help ward off cold and flues.

By his count, H1N1 on its own has pumped up sales by "that extra 10 or 15 per cent in sales we're seeing across the board." "The demand is solid," he said. "We're tickled to death." There are numbers to prove it.

Monthly AC Nielsen reports that track orange juice sales in the U.S. are showing steady increases over the past seven months.

That's partly due to a lowering of juice prices this year over last year's, but heightened demand is also a factor, said Bob Norbert, the deputy executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus' research and operations division.

"Orange juice is always consumed at a higher rate during this time of the year as weather gets colder and people get the sniffles. They start to look at orange juice to help boost their immune system," he said, adding that the numbers do not quantify the specific influence of H1N1.

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Original estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast a 15-per-cent reduction in Florida's citrus crop for 2009-2010, due largely to the variability of weather and ongoing problems with tree disease in the industry, which There are 74.1 million citrus trees in commercial production in Florida. The proceeds of their fruit injects $9-billion (U.S.) annually into the state economy.

As the flu continues to spread, it is likely the H1N1-related juice boom will continue inflating even though this year's yield produced less juice.

James Courtier, an options analyst with the U.S.-based Liberty Trading Group, has been tracking orange juice futures and said there has been a marked increase over the past two or three months as the flu has intensified.

In fact, orange-juice futures for January jumped 73 per cent so far this year, before pulling back slightly on Friday.

"I bet that 30 to 40 per cent of the increase in sales that we've seen in orange juice can be attributed to health concerns," Mr. Courtier said. "Whether it be this flu or other [outbreaks]that are extremely rampant … it coincides with the demand for orange juice. It's a psychological purchase when you go to the grocery store," he said, adding that sales figures are up between 3 and 5 per cent over the five-year average for this time of year.

Whether all that juice is actually helping people stay healthy is an open question.

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Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, said there is no evidence that OJ will help you fight off H1N1.

"It's a great marketing tool. I think they've been very successful and congratulations," Dr. Low said. "It's not going to hurt you. But it's not going to make you feel better."

With a report from Caroline Alphonso

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Jessica Leeder is the Globe’s Atlantic Reporter, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In previous roles, Jessica has reported for the Globe from Afghanistan and post-quake Haiti, assignments for which she won an Emmy and a National Newspaper Award, respectively. She has also written about the politics of global food, entrepreneurialism and small business, and automotive news. More

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