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Rising price of gas puts squeeze on food prices

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published April 6, 2005


Soaring fuel prices could soon be felt at the supermarket checkout aisle. Farmers, wholesalers and distributors are already feeling the pinch.

"It's a real concern," said Les Harrison of the Florida Department of Agriculture, who added that so far consumers have been spared the effects of the higher costs.

"It's a situation where these costs are absorbed and the returns to the people along the chain are reduced," Harrison said. "The cost of fuel will factor into that vegetable."

Sam Skogstad, a buyer for Brooks Tropicals in Homestead, agrees.

"Transportation costs have definitely increased. We've only had one increase to our customers. We try to absorb as much of it as we can," he said.

Frans Boetes, vice president of marketing and sales at Brooks Tropicals, said everyone is being affected by higher fuel prices.

"It's sad for every player in the market. It's bad for the consumer, it's bad for the retailer. It's not only us," he said.

Food shoppers will see higher food prices this spring, says Mark Huling, salesman for Seminole Produce Distributing Inc., a broker to wholesalers and food service distributors.

"There will be a definite increase in the cost of products and the retailers know what the price point is that the consumers can withstand. Everybody has to pass on the costs. It is something that has to be done," Huling said by telephone from Sanford.

The good news is an abundant supply of fruit and vegetables on the market, despite recent heavy rains and cold spells, Huling said.

The Florida Department of Agriculture's Harrison said shoppers should look for the season's first blueberries this month. Florida blueberries will be available from April to June, when they will yield to berries from northern states. Florida strawberry season is almost over, but an ample supply of oranges and grapefruit is still available, Harrison said. Cabbage, eggplant, cucumbers and other Florida produce also are plentiful.

Brooks Tropicals expects Uniq fruit from Jamaica to be plentiful this month. The fruit, a cross between mandarin orange and grapefruit, will be in Kash n' Karry, Skogstad said. Caribbean red papaya from Belize will also be in stores. The papayas, promoted for their high nutritional value, should be available in Publix, he said.

Produce

April is a good month to shop for apples, artichokes, asparagus, avocados, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cucumbers, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, okra, papaya, spinach, summer squash, carrots, green peas, eggplant, lettuce, beans, peppers, radishes, sweet corn, tomatoes, oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, Florida blueberries and tomatoes.

Seafood

Fruits and vegetables will not be the only items affected by higher fuel prices. Seafood also will cost more.

"With the rising fuel costs for both the local fisherman and for product that is flown in and trucked in, some companies have already added a fuel surcharge," said Paul Johnson, owner of Seven Springs Seafood Co. in New Port Richey.

Johnson hopes to buoy spirits with an income tax day fish fry at his store. The April 15 fish fry continues the Friday fish dinners he began in February. Also this month, he hopes to have plenty of grouper. The season opened March 15.

"With the weather starting to warm up, we're expecting a lot more of the local fish to come in. We're hoping we will be able to get some stone crabs again," he said.

The crabs have been scarce, said Gib Migliano of Save on Seafood in St. Petersburg.

"Production is terrible at best," he said, adding that medium stone claws will probably sell for around $10.95 a pound and large and jumbo claws for around $18 to $24 a pound.

The supply of grouper is expected to be better.

"The boats are starting to arrive pretty steadily, so you should see an ample supply for the month of April," Migliano said; cost should be about $9.95 a pound.

Red snapper opened in the gulf on Friday. Fillets will sell for about $10.95 a pound and whole fish for $4.95 a pound, Migliano said.

He said that Key West pink shrimp will continue to be a good value.

This also is the time of year when kingfish, pompano and Spanish mackerel migrate north, so they should be in markets in coming weeks.

Prices for whole pompano could be around $4.95 a pound, with fillets $11.49 a pound, Migliano said. He said whole Spanish mackerel could cost $1.99 a pound and fillets, $3.99 a pound. Whole kingfish will sell for about $3.49 a pound, with steaks about $5.99 a pound.

Waveney Ann Moore writes about produce and seafood monthly for the Taste section. Contact her at 727 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com