Inflation concerns shine media spotlight on food

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Our top story tonight: Your dinner, and your breakfast and lunch too.

Food – more specifically, rapidly rising prices for food – is a big story these days. You know it’s a big story when the president of France gets involved. Last week, French leader Nicolas Sarkozy called for tighter global regulation to avoid major food shortages and rein in commodity speculation.

“Speculation, panic and lack of transparency have seen prices soaring,” Sarkozy said at a conference in Brussels, according to Associated Press. “Is that the world we want? France is saying quite clearly it is not.”

In the U.S., grocery inflation has been accelerating since last year, and without a doubt, it’s become increasingly worrisome for food producers. Much of this reflects pricier bacon, milk and other livestock- or grain-related staples. During the first five months of 2011, average U.S. retail beef and pork prices both rose more than 10 percent compared with the corresponding months in 2010, according to Labor Department data.

With gasoline prices up sharply and unemployment hovering above 9 percent, something’s got to give, and it may be a few items from your grocery list.

Here’s some more eyebrow-raising numbers: According to a recent American Farm Bureau Federation survey, the cost for 16 food items used to prepare one or more meals totaled $51.17, up 8 percent from a year ago. Sirloin tip roast, sliced deli ham and bacon had the largest dollar increases from the first quarter, the Farm Bureau said, noting that higher energy costs are a major factor driving food prices up generally.

Further retail price increases are likely to be the “new normal,” especially for meats, for the foreseeable future. Farm Bureau economist John Anderson said in a June 9 statement.  “It takes time for farmers to increase the size of their herds to in order to meet higher demand,” he said.

I don’t intend to spread alarm – U.S. grocery prices have actually moderated over the past couple months - and I’m not saying we’re going to run out of food. In the U.S., we’ve still got a bounty, thanks to growers and farmers who are without peer at their jobs.

But it seems quite possible, amid ongoing growth in China and elsewhere, that the era of relatively “cheap” food is over. Just as the era of “cheap” gas ended around the middle of the last decade, after oil passed $50 a barrel on its way to $100 and above.

In some respects, these are positive developments. Farmers and meat producers will find new and creative methods to navigate a higher-cost environment, become more efficient and keep pace with rising demand, and perhaps find ways to exploit inflationary trends to their benefit.

Also, anyone who may have taken their food for granted may be compelled to learn and understand a little more about where their dinner comes from. Having lived in a major city for nearly two decades after growing up on an Iowa farm, I can tell you more than a few urbanites I know are largely clueless in these matters.

Sarkozy currently heads the group of rich, industrialized countries known as the G-20, and he should know better than to blame speculators for escalating food prices, a convenient and unfortunately all-too-common crutch for many politicians which does little to shed light on a complex and critical issue.

But keeping this discussion on the world stage can only help longer-term, and after all, the French do know their food. So do we, for that matter.


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