Independent truckers will have to show greater participation in their current strike over higher federal taxes before the consumer feels much effect. But increased participation could be just around the corner as reports spread across the country of violence against drivers still on the road.
That is the consensus of several representatives of the food industry as the national shutdown gathered strength. These sources express concern that the situation could change quickly if support widens.
As one industry spokesman puts it: ''It's the press that keeps these things alive, so be careful what you say.''
Reports from across the United States indicate there was considerable confusion in the truckers' ranks over when the shutdown actually would begin and how many were participating. Many independents took their rigs off the road Sunday night, but others were waiting until Tuesday to stop driving. Still others were continuing to drive, saying they could not afford to park their trucks. Poor organization of the strike was an oft-heard criticism.
Nonstriking drivers quickly became the targets of violence. One trucker was killed by sniper fire late Monday in North Carolina, a key corridor state between the citrus and vegetable growers of Florida and the major Northeastern markets.
Still, produce centers in New England and New York were experiencing normal deliveries, although some wholesalers claimed this was because drivers were pushing to unload and be on their way home.
A source at the Bronx Terminal Market in New York Tuesday said he still was seeing no effects of the shutdown, adding: ''Whatever trailers come in here, there are no problems. So far, we don't see anything happening.''
He said, however, that stocks in supermarkets could begin to dwindle in as little as 72 hours if deliveries slack off.
Al Nagelberg, a wholesaler at the Hunts Point Market, New York's other produce terminal, says supplies of tomatoes and such green vegetables as cucumbers, peppers, and squash from Texas and Florida would be the first affected by the strike. Lettuce supplies would be less of a problem, he says.
Mr. Nagelberg says he has heard reports that truck brokers, who coordinate shipments of produce into major markets, were booking loads with no guarantee of arrival.
Indeed, broker Bob Richardson of Nogales, Ariz., on the Mexican border, says his firm failed to book a single truckload of tomatoes Monday. Normal volume is 10 to 20 loads a day, he says.
Charles McAlpin of Decatur, Ala., who brokers shipments of everything from produce to fabricated building materials, adds: ''We've got 20 drivers here who won't go. They're all waiting for somebody else to be the first.''
California citrus, half of which travels by truck to markets outside the state, is unaffected so far, according to Jack Heeger, vice-president for public affairs of the Sunkist Growers association in Sherman Oaks. Prices of navel oranges, grapefruit, and lemons should remain unchanged unless the strike is prolonged, he maintains.
Dewey Bond, a spokesman for the transportation committee of the American Meat Institute, says he surveyed key shippers and found only one isolated problem to date.
If the strike persists, however, Dr. Bond says increased prices at the supermarket and layoffs in the packing industry could follow.