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ECONOMIST STICKING TO ORIGINAL FOOD PRICE FORECAST

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Consumer food prices are still on track to increase by a modest 3 percent to 5 percent in 1990 despite the bitter cold that has ravaged citrus and winter vegetable crops, says an Agriculture Department analyst.

The food price forecast was made last month, and economist Ralph Parlett said this week he is sticking by it, at least for now.Overall food prices are up an average of about 5.7 percent this year, the largest annual gain since a 7.8 percent jump in 1981. Much of this year's increase was due to lingering effects of the 1988 drought and poor weather early in 1989.

"I'm not worried about my overall forecast (for 1990) at this point," Parlett said in a telephone interview. "But there'll be some impact, and possibly higher prices in the first quarter."

Parlett said he and other agency analysts are "still trying to assess the damage" to citrus and vegetable crops in Florida and elsewhere.

"The main thing is oranges," he said. "Vegetables - tomatoes, bell peppers, celery - they're some of the big volume things that would be coming out of Florida now."

Parlett said 90 percent of the Florida oranges are for processing and that a lot of them can be salvaged for juice. The main source of "fresh market" oranges is California.

"There will be some (retail) price impact," he said. "But since we do have decent supplies in California this year . . . the supply impact will be minimal."