The winter crop freeze in Florida drove up produce prices in the Washington area 9.7 percent in February, causing most of a 2.1 percent rise in the area's retail food prices during the month. The February increase was more than four times the national food-price increase of 0.5 percent.

The increased cost of fruits and vegetables overwhelmed slight decreases in fish, seafood, sweets, processed vegetables and bakery products. Prices of dairy products, eggs, soft drinks, and fruit juices were up slightly.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which released the price figures yesterday, said the price of oranges alone went up more than 40 percent during the month.

The crop freeze raised prices of produce from Florida and created shortages that forced area supermarkets to look farther afield for their fruits and vegetables, increasing transportation costs, experts said.

The Washington area was harder hit by the price increases than most regions because of its proximity to Florida, which normally keeps shipping costs down.

"In the produce area we did pay higher transportation costs . . . because we were buying from across the country rather than three states away," said Barry Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food.

"We had to move out to the West Coast, to Arizona and New Mexico, to bring produce in," Safeway spokesman Ernie Moore said. "That increased our transportation costs. I think that's a major part of it." Moore said this year's Florida freeze was worse than most previous freezes.

In addition, local preferences for higher-quality, higher-priced foods may have magnified the price increase, experts said. Washington is considered one of the nation's most affluent food markets, with many consumers who have a preference for gourmet-type foods. "People here do like better products," Scher said.

The Washington area, dominated as it is by the Giant and Safeway chains, also has fewer independent food stores to challenge the chains' prices, according to Jeff Metzger, editor of Food World, a Columbia-based grocery-industry newsletter.

"Traditionally, independents in many markets are more apt to go to discounting," he said. Higher land prices, labor costs and overhead also tend to make Washington-area grocery prices more expensive, he added.

Industry experts said the February price spurt is abating as the Florida produce industry regains strength and warmer weather opens up other produce-growing areas.