NationNation Now

What price perishables? Why beef, bacon, even shrimp, are costing more

What's causing prices of meat and vegetables to jump? Extreme weather is partly to blame
After a period of stable food prices, grocery items have been getting more expensive
The price of flour is up 50% over the last decade; bacon is up 41% and beef 30%

It's not just your imagination: You are spending more money at the grocery store these days as the price of limes, shrimp, hamburgers and bacon skyrockets.

Prices are rising, and not just with those foods that have been affected by Mexican drug cartels or been hamstrung by epidemics of pig diarrhea.

Even when adjusted for inflation, the price of flour has gone up 50% in the last decade, bacon is up 41% and beef is up 30%. Just about the only things that have stayed the same, when adjusted for inflation: malt beverages, which went down in price, and chips, which grew about 3% in price.

"We had a period of stable, predictable retail food prices from 1990-2006, when food prices did pretty much the same thing every year," said Richard Volpe, a research economist with the Food Markets Branch of the Food Economics Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "But since 2006, retail food prices have risen faster than overall economy-wise prices."

So what's going on?

First of all, it’s perishables that are jumping in price - meats, dairy, fruit. Foods such as soda, candy and crackers are staying relatively flat.

That's because around the world, as developing countries get richer, their residents are clamoring for more meat, fruit and dairy. Basic laws of economics tell us that when demand goes up, prices do too, unless supply goes up as well. And supply of these items has, in fact, been going down, Volpe said.

First there was the drought in Texas and the West that forced the price of feed up. Farmers, frustrated with high feed prices, sold their cows. And now the U.S. has low cattle inventory.

Then consumers turned to pork when beef prices got too high, but supply was limited by a porcine diarrhea epidemic that killed off pigs around the world.

Consumers then turned to turkey, chicken and other meats, causing those prices to rise too.

But it's not just meat that has been volatile: freezes in California drove up prices of oranges and nectarines. A deadly citrus greening epidemic has killed off millions of pounds of fruit over the last few years. Even egg prices are up 10% over the year as more people turn to eggs from meat.

These fast-growing prices are relatively new in the history of American food consumption. The price of beef was actually lower in 2010 than it was in 1984, when adjusted for inflation, for instance. But since 2010, the inflation-adjusted price has jumped 45%.

Weather events are partially to blame. Think polar vortex, drought, severe rainfall, more drought.

"A series of weather events have certainly been responsible for the price of perishables over the last five, six years," Volpe said. "From my perspective, it does seem the frequency has picked up over the last five years or so. There's always something going on - whether a drought, freeze or flood."

Before you start to panic, though, one positive note: Consumers in the U.S. still spend much less of their incomes on food than consumers in other countries. We spend about 11% of our income on food. Afghans spend about 50% of theirs on food, Volpe said.


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Congress turns up heat over VA allegations
    Congress turns up heat over VA allegations

    As Congress stepped up efforts Thursday to get to the bottom of the allegations of substandard healthcare services at Veterans Affairs facilities, a Senate committee provided funds for a nationwide investigation and a House panel authorized a subpoena to compel VA officials to appear at a...

  • NATO nuclear drawdown now seems unlikely
    NATO nuclear drawdown now seems unlikely

    Last summer in Berlin, President Obama called for "bold reductions" in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons to ease the risk of annihilation in Europe.

  • White House intruder arrested after entering front doors
    White House intruder arrested after entering front doors

    An intruder scaled a White House fence and made it all the way into the building Friday evening before he was caught and wrestled to the ground by security officers, the Secret Service said. President Obama and his family had already left for Camp David when the incident occurred.

  • Man who killed daughter and grandchildren had violent past
    Man who killed daughter and grandchildren had violent past

    Don Spirit, a Florida grandfather who fatally shot his daughter Sarah Lorraine Spirit and six grandchildren before killing himself, had a long history of domestic violence — at one point pushing his pregnant daughter against a refrigerator and assaulting and threatening his former...

  • Rain pounds Texas: A sign the drought is ending?
    Rain pounds Texas: A sign the drought is ending?

    In Texas, where the governor once urged the public to pray for rain, this week’s torrential storms might finally be a sign of lasting relief for the state plagued by years of drought. Or maybe not.

  • For many in Congress, a first test on issues of war
    For many in Congress, a first test on issues of war

    Lawmakers' votes this week on whether or not to train and equip Syrian opposition forces in the fight against Islamic State were arguably the most consequential after nearly two years in which Congress is likely to set a new low for productivity.

  • Egyptian militant admits links to 1998 U.S. embassy bombings

    A longtime Egyptian militant with ties to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden admitted in federal court Friday that he had links to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, a surprise guilty plea that the judge sharply questioned because it reduces his prison time from a potential life sentence to...

  • Four takeaways from the vote in Congress to arm Syrian rebels
    Four takeaways from the vote in Congress to arm Syrian rebels

    What was supposed to be a no-drama final session of Congress before the campaign season turned into anything but as President Obama's new strategy to combat the threat from Islamic State resulted in a wrenching vote that is likely to reverberate through the midterm election and...