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Steeply rising produce prices are only the tip of the iceberg - lettuce, that is.

Grocers and wholesalers already warning produce customers of cost increases - as much as 400 percent of what they've been - are only dealing with the first course tossed at them by Mother Nature this year.The heavy rains in California in January ruined one crop. That's pushed prices from $7 or $8 a case for letture to between $40 and $45 per case for the wholesale cus-to-mer.

And it's going to spoil the summer salad plate.

"This is totally different, what we have going on now. We haven't seen any of the results from the flooding situation yet," said Blake Bassett, a buyer for Kraft Foodservice Inc., who only saw prices go above $40 a case one other time in his 25 year career.

"In three weeks to a month, you'll see what's left from the floods hit the market. Then it's really crunch time."

Floods in early March left 48 of California's 58 counties declared disaster areas.

Bassett said orders are already being pro-rated by the California suppliers. He can expect to get only a portion of whatever he orders.

Grocers are posting notice of impending drastic price changes.

"Actually it's just kind of beginning. What we're seeing is unrelated to the floods. Those potential crops would not have been mature for another month," said Bassett.

He said the Salinas Valley - aptly nicknamed the nation's "salad bowl" - normally has two plantings to sell. This summer there will essentially be only one.

However, like so much in the food industry, Bassett said "how bad it gets"

depends on what the weather does to the area from here on out.

"There are so many factors: How much was lost? How quickly was some replanted or transplanted? How has the weather been since then? The biggest thing people forget about this kind of product is it's not a manufactured product. It all depends on Mother Nature. This is like the freezeout of the apple crops in Utah."

Bassett said some options are available if the worst case scenario comes true and there's no more lettuce from California until November 1995. Lettuce is grown in New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon and Washington as well and there are faster-growing varieties like Greenleaf lettuce that can replace iceberg.

The price probably won't hurt the grocery story customer as badly as it'll hit restaurants and caterers, he said, because "they can simply choose not to buy it at the high price. The restaurant owner will have a hard time not offering a green salad."

Provo's Storehouse Market manager Kevin Bushell said he expects the closeout sale of three for $1 on lettuce stocks to be the last for a while. It's currently selling for $1.09 a pound and expected to rise to more than $2.50 a pound by the end of the month.

McDonald's regional marketing manager Scott Manning said it's "safe to say we're going to see some impact" but it's too soon to guess how much.

All McDonald's franchises offer packaged salads and some run open salad bars, as does Wendy's, Sizzler and a variety of other food chains.

"We're just in a wait-and-see mode," said Manning. "But we don't anticipate a noticeable increase to our customers."

Local Blimpie's managers said usually a price fluctuation is just absorbed, but if the lettuce shortage is long lasting, "we may not be able to eat it," said a Provo owner.

Brigham Young University Food Services personnel said the higher prices cannot be passed on because of university policy that allows just one increase per year.

But, explained Erma Lee Anderson, there will probably be more Greenleaf or spinach cut into the salad for the bar and there will be substitutions for items that call for a lot of lettuce.

"Our purchasing agent says the price is already four times what we usually pay and going up daily," said Anderson. "Plus, iceberg is our most fragile as in perishable product. It's difficult to save it."

Bassett said the next few weeks will be interesting as well as challenging for the food industry. It may force some shifts in buying and marketing patterns and the law of supply and demand will certainly dictate prices.

"I think it's going to be real opportunity for some education," surmised Bassett.