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March 21, 2002   Email to Friend 

Jeff Helms
March 21, 2002

"MONTGOMERY, Ala." One of the worst lettuce shortages in 15 years and rebounding meat prices combined to push Alabama grocery prices 3.6 percent higher this month, according to the Alabama Farmers Federation's monthly food price survey. Data collected March 1-8 from supermarkets throughout the state showed the average cost of 20 basic market basket items was $38.34, up $1.35 from February and up $1.17 from a year ago.

The biggest jump in prices was on the produce aisle where lettuce averaged $1.64 a head, up 62 cents. Produce suppliers blamed the shortage on unusually cold weather in California and Arizona. California supplies 50 percent of the nation's lettuce. Experts say prices should retreat during the next few months when growers begin harvesting their spring crops.

In the meat case, higher prices for selected cuts resulted in an overall increase in shoppers' food bill, while the prices of lower-value cuts were basically unchanged. For pork, the big-ticket item was bacon, which averaged $2.74, up 22 cents. T-bone steaks followed suit at $6.20 a pound, up 79 cents. Ground beef, however, was 7 cents cheaper at $1.55 a pound, and chuck roasts were up just 3 cents at $2.29 a pound. Poultry prices also were a mixed bag in March as chicken breasts scanned in at $1.86 a pound, up 43 cents, while whole fryers were down slightly at 86 cents a pound.

Farmers and consumers will be watching poultry prices closely in the coming months to see whether Russia's recent ban on U.S. poultry products will affect prices. Jimmy Carlisle, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation's poultry division, said about half of all U.S. poultry exports go to Russia. The former Soviet country's decision to ban U.S. poultry came on the heels of America's decision to increase tariffs on Russian steel.

"The ban by Russia could cause an oversupply," Carlisle said. "While consumers may enjoy lower prices at the grocery store, farmers may feel the effects from the reduced demand. It could mean that a farmer would produce fewer chickens, therefore reducing his farm income."

Meanwhile, this month's food price survey did include some good news for Alabama shoppers. Dairy prices were 3.4 percent lower, and eggs prices dropped 8.6 percent--just in time for Easter. According to the survey, a half-gallon of milk averaged $1.80, down 8 cents; a half-gallon of ice cream was $2.87, down 14 cents; and butter averaged $2.62, down 4 cents. Eggs were 85 cents a dozen, down 8 cents.

Regional reports collected at supermarkets around the state showed the market basket averaged $36.55 in northwest Alabama, $37.89 in the central counties, $38.55 in the northeast corner of the state, and $40.54 in south Alabama.

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