Food Prices Surging at Highest Rate in Over Two Decades

May 25, 2011


May 25, 2011

U.S. food-price inflation may top the government’s forecast as higher crop, meat, dairy and energy costs lead companies including Nestle SA, McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) and Whole Foods Market Inc. (WFMI) to boost prices.

Retail-food prices will jump more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate of 3 percent to 4 percent this year, said Chad E. Hart, an economist at Iowa State University in Ames. Companies will pass along more of their higher costs through year-end, said Bill Lapp, a former ConAgra Foods Inc. chief economist. The USDA will update its forecast today.

Groceries and restaurant meals rose 2.4 percent in the four months through April, the most to start a year since 1990, government data show. During the period, rice, wheat and milk futures touched the highest levels since 2008, and retail beef reached a record. Yesterday, J.M. Smucker Co. announced an 11 percent price increase for Folgers coffee, the best-selling U.S. brand, after the cost of beans almost doubled in a year.

“It’s going to be a tough year” for U.S. shoppers, said Lapp, who is president of Advanced Economic Solutions, an agriculture consultant in Omaha, Nebraska. “You’re looking at an economy where a lot of consumers are under some serious pressure from food and fuel costs.”

Even after a drop in commodities this month, seven of eight tracked by the Standard & Poor’s GSCI Agriculture Index are higher than a year earlier as adverse weather damages crops, rising demand erodes inventories and a weak dollar boosts demand for U.S. exports. Corn futures are up 98 percent, wheat gained 67 percent, raw sugar advanced 44 percent, and rice jumped 25 percent.

Crop Damage

Dry weather during this year in Europe, China and the southern Great Plains of the U.S. may cut crop yields, while floods along the Mississippi River this month may slow planting of corn, soybeans and rice. The U.S. is the world’s largest agricultural exporter.

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