- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

While gas prices keep rising, so does the cost to fuel your body. On the unofficial beginning of the cookout season, consumers are getting burned by rising food prices.

Celebrating freedom in American style — with lots of food — will be more expensive this Memorial Day.

“About everything we’re going to grill is going to be higher this year compared to last year,” said Bob Young, chief economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Beef prices are rising sharply as demand increases, thanks to a growing economy and the popularity of high-protein diets.

A shortage of beef also is boosting prices. The prohibition on Canadian cattle imports since last year, after a case of mad cow disease, has contributed to the beef shortage in the United States.

That means the cost of nearly all beef products is up this Memorial Day, said James Robb, director of the Livestock Marketing Information Center, a market analyst firm in Denver.

A pound of ground beef cost an average of $2.09 in April, according to the most recent information available from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was up 24 cents from the average price of $1.85 a pound last Memorial Day.

A pound of lean ground beef increased almost 9 percent from $2.65 a pound last May to $2.90 in April.

Want a cheeseburger?

A pound of processed American cheese has gone up nearly 7 percent from $3.59 a pound last year to $3.84.

Slice of tomato with your burger?

A pound of tomatoes is up 8 percent, from $1.40 a year ago to $1.52.

Sirloin is nearly 21 percent more expensive than a year ago. The price shot up from $5.47 a pound last May to $6.61 a pound in April.

In March, the average price of pork chops was up 19 cents to $3.42 per pound compared with a year ago, the Farm Bureau said.

The beef industry typically enjoys its strongest sales of the year before Memorial Day and the Fourth of July because many Americans celebrate those holidays with cookouts.

“Memorial Day is an important weekend for the industry, but consumers will see higher prices and we may not move as much beef,” Mr. Robb said.

Many food prices have risen faster than the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index, the government’s most closely watched barometer of inflation. The index was up 2.3 percent in April compared with April 2003.

The index measures the average change in price for a variety of household goods and services, including food and beverages, housing, apparel, transportation, medical care, recreation, education and communications.

Chicken will cost more, too. The cost of a whole chicken increased from $1.03 a pound a year ago to $1.12, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm event since all these prices have gone up at the same time,” Mr. Young said.

The American Farm Bureau’s survey of retail food prices concluded that the cost of 16 basic items increased $2.41 in the first quarter to $39.84. Of the 16 items — groceries including bread, potatoes, apples, chicken, eggs, bacon and mayonnaise — 13 cost more in the first quarter than they did in the fourth quarter.

Two items were cheaper, and one cost the same.

Beer prices are up about 2.5 percent over last year, said Harry Shuhmacher, editor of Beer Business Daily, based in San Antonio.

You want milk instead?

A gallon of whole milk costs 8 percent more this year, up 22 cents to $2.90, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Even more expensive than a backyard barbecue is a trip to the beach, as fuel prices continue to surge.

The national average for a gallon of gas reached $2.06 last week, but apparently has done little to deter local residents’ appetite for the beach.

About 509,000 people from the metropolitan Washington region will take trips of 50 miles or more, up 3 percent from last year.

More U.S. vacationers will travel this Memorial Day weekend than last year, despite record high gas prices.

About 30.9 million travelers, up 3.4 percent from last year, will drive 50 miles or more by car, AAA finds in its annual survey.

“Gas prices aren’t discouraging travel,” said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

And it’s unlikely food costs will discourage eating habits today.

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