The impact of cold weather on consumer food products is being oversold. It's true that the Florida freeze has pushed up the price of fresh fruits and vegetables. But in most cases, prices have held steady on the same items,frozen or canned. In fact, consumers may even save a little money by making the switch.
It cities where storms or ice-jammed rivers interrupted normal foot deliveries, prices have jumped on this or that item in an erratic pattern. But you can generally switch to other foods for a few days while waiting for prices on the things you usually buy to get back to normal.
When the next price index is published, it probably will show prices sharply higher for many weather-affected items. There will be a hue and cry about how badly consumers are being hurt. But assuming that people on marginal budgets stick to canned or frozen foods, it's possible that their cost of eating has hardly gone up at all.
In some cases, all of the publicity about the freeze pushed prices on some foods far higher than necessary. Oranges, for example: prices rose steadily in the supermarkets even though there was no shortage of supply. The Agriculture Department has just estimated that despite the freeze Florida's crop will be 3 per cent larger than it was last year. Orange juice yields will be down a little, but supplies are still ample.
Once that cat was out of the bag, orange prices fell on the wholesale market and should fall in your supermarket, too.
Egg prices rose when the hens got cold and laid less, but that situation already is better. Tomato prices, after a quick zoom up, dropped off in many places as Florida growers salvaged what they could of their early crops and got them to market. (Salvaged tomatoes don't seem to taste any worse than the usual gas-ripened Florida product.)
The rest of the tomatoes in your stores are imported from Mexico - and their prices will probably rise until Florida's spring crops start arriving in March and April, say Charles Porter, the Agriculture Department's vegetable-price specialist.
The other salad crops like peppers and cucumbers come from Mexico this time of year, and crops there are normal.
By the first of April, says Porter, squash, beans and salad crops will be arriving from Florida and everything should be back to normal.
The fact is that when you go into a store and see prices up a penny here, a penny there, and an occasional big increase (as in coffee), it's easy to think inflation is once again overtaking us. But food price increases have been quite moderate. Some prices - including beef, pork, chicken, corn, wheat, sugar and flour - are below what they've been for the past couple of years. That can't be said about most of the other things we buy.
The average increase in food prices last year was only 3 per cent; if you take coffee out of the formula, it was only 1.5 per cent, according to the Agriculture Department's Dawson Ahalt.
Eldon Ball, the government's specialist in livestock prices, says that pork prices will likely stay below last year's levels. Beef prices should start to increase this summer, but not excessively. If the western drought persists, however, an unusual number of livestock might be slaughtered. This could lead to short supplies and much higher prices next year.
The western drought is a far mor serious threat to food prices than the Florida freeze. Many irrigation districts in northern California are down to 25 per cent or less of their normal water supply. Faced with probability of strict water rationing, farmers soon will have to make hard choices about which crops to plant and which to let go. Even if the rains started today and continued for the remaining six weeks of the "rainy season," it's unlikely that there'd be enough water to produce normal crops.
There's a drought cycle in the United States that hits every 20 to 22 years. On that schedule, we're due. Some 55 per cent of our fresh vegetables and 60 per cent of our processed vegetables come from the Pacific Coast and Mountain States. Unless the rains come soon, you could be faced with higher food price increases later this year and in 1978