Food industry spokesmen declared today that they and their colleagues in farms and supermarkets are not to blame for the high price of food. Instead, they said, blame inflation.
If that reasoning sounds a bit circular, it's supposed to.
Answering charges that rising food prices are a leading cause of inflation and that the industry is profiting from them, the food people turned their pockets inside out and said it wasn't so -- generally speaking, that is. They said higher food prices have gone to cover the inflated labor, energy and transportation costs of carrying a product from field to shelf, and there's been little left over to fatten profit margins.
"There is no single villain," said Stephen D'Agostino, owner of a 17-store supermarket chain in the New York area. "If food inflation is a crime, it is a culpritless one."
The food-price outlook for 1979, meantime, was called mixed. Sharp increases of up to 20 percent were predicted for beef. On the other hand, price increases for pork, poultry and milk products are expected to slow up by summer. The forecast for fruits and vegetables remains uncertain, clouded at the moment by labor troubles in California.
Overall; the Department of Agriculture is predicting food prices will increase 8.5 percent this year, a relief somewhat from 1978's inflation-stoking rate of 11.5 percent. But industry representatives here call that estimate too conservative, particularly in light of the rapid rise in food prices fo far this year.
Speaking for the food industry was a diverse bunch of farmers, ranchers and grocers from as far west as California and as far south as Arlington, Va., flown to the big city by the Food Marketing Institute, which represents roughly half the nation's grocers. They came, each said, to talk about what was really going on in the food business and to show that newspaper headlines about inflated food prices can be misleading.
"Cattle prices will have to stay high for some time in order to stimulate and maintain herd rebuilding," said J.W. (Bill Swan, a rancher from Rogerson, Idaho.
Under increasing pressure to do more to stem inflation, the White House last week pinpointed food as the principle growing inflation problem and promised some action soon aimed at slowing price increases.
Taking note of this and of the mounting threat of controls, Swan warned the Carter administration not to interfere in the meat market. "When things were bad, we didn't go to Washington asking for subsidies," he said. "We took our lumps. Now that things are turning around, if we have a free-enterprise system, we want to reap the benefits. We expect government to stay out."
The widening disparity between beef prices and the price of substitutes is likely to prompt consumers to opt for the cheaper alternatives. William Boehm, a Department of Agriculture economist, predicted here that beef consumption will be about five pounds less per person in 1979 than it was last year. In turn, consumption of pork and chicken will increase, he said.
Poultry farmers already are seeing an increase in demand not only for chicken but turkey and duck as well, and are anticipating the switch eagerly. "One of the bright areas in the poultry industry has been the development of a variety of processed products, including chicken and turkey hot dogs, turkey ham, chicken and turkey bologna, turkey pastrami and turkey sausage," said Lee Campbell, president of the Poultry and Egg Institute of America...