Sao Paulo residents buy tomatoes at the local open-air market in a file photo dates January 20 1999

President Dilma Rousseff may be among the world’s most popular presidents but her chances of re-election next year are being challenged by a formidable opponent – the humble tomato.

The price of tomatoes is partly seasonal, but also symptomatic of rising inflation in the country. It is as sensitive in Brazil – and, in particular, São Paulo and the surrounding state of the same name – as that of onions in India because of their status as a staple food in a region whose Italian immigrant roots run very deep.

This year, bad weather has driven tomato prices up by about threefold, evoking protests from restaurateurs in a city known for the country’s best pizzas and pastas and throwing a spotlight on nagging inflation in Brazil.

“I’ve had this restaurant for 48 years and this has been the worst price rise I have seen,” said Walter Taverna, whose restaurant Conchetta is a fixture of São Paulo’s historic Italian district, Bixiga.

He said he had resorted to buying imported tomato purée from Italy. “I have four restaurants and this tomato price rise has caused us big losses … around 5-10 per cent per month, which is a lot for a small businessperson.”

Inflation is a highly emotive issue in Brazil because of the country’s struggle during earlier decades with runaway price rises of as much as 2,500 per cent.

Brazil’s inflation rate remains well below that of other emerging nations, such as neighbouring Argentina, where it is more than 24 per cent. But last month it hit 6.59 per cent, breaching the top of the central bank’s target range of 4.5 per cent plus or minus 2 percentage points, and provoking concern in a society with a low tolerance for price rises.

Although analysts expect it to moderate later in the year, it will continue to pose challenges for Ms Rousseff as she tries to kick start an economy that grew less than 1 per cent last year.

She owes much of her personal popularity rating of 78 per cent to Brazil’s record low unemployment rate but any further inflation shocks will undermine voters’ feelings of well-being ahead of presidential polls next year.

“If inflation continues to surprise on the upside there is a risk it will continue to erode real income in Brazil,” said Marcelo Salomon, economist at Barclays.

That is why at Ceagesp, São Paulo’s central market for fruits and vegetables, the tomato is the dominant topic of conversation among traders.

Leandro Boucher, a staff member at Batista, one of the market’s biggest grocers, said tomatoes were selling for up to R$3.50-R$4 a kilo, three times the value of last year, after heavy rains had destroyed up to 70 per cent of crops in some areas.

He said the price of other vegetables had risen as well, with peppers selling for R$10 ($5) per kilo compared with the normal price of R$3 or R$4.

While tomato prices were expected to have peaked, traders warned they could rise again if there was a cold snap as São Paulo heads into winter.

“My clients want to beat me up: they think I’m responsible for this,” said another trader, Edmilson Cardoso.

But in one good sign for Ms Rousseff, at least the residents of São Paulo are still smiling.

The price rise has led to a flood of tomato jokes in the city, with some saying consumers have started to pay for them in instalments – a common method of purchasing in Brazil but one usually reserved for fridges or iPhones rather than food.

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