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USDA: Drought to hike up grocery prices

MINNEAPOLIS -- The drought gripping more than half the country is a major reason why consumers can expect to pay 3 percent to 4 percent more for groceries next year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said yesterday.

Milk, eggs, beef, poultry and pork prices will all be affected because the drought has pushed up prices for feed, and that will eventually translate into higher prices for steaks, hamburger, pork chops and chicken. The good news for cost-conscious consumers is that prices for fruits and vegetables, as well as processed foods, aren't affected as much by the drought.

Exactly how much more people might pay for a pound of hamburger, for example, isn't known because those prices are affected by lots of factors, including how much of the increase a given supermarket might pass along to the consumer. But beef prices as a whole are expected to see the biggest jump, 4 percent to 5 percent, according to the USDA.

Dairy product prices are forecast to climb 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent; poultry and egg prices are projected to rise 3 percent to 4 percent; and pork prices are expected to rise 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent in 2013, the agency said. Normal grocery price inflation is about 2.8 percent a year, said USDA economist Richard Volpe.

The new forecasts are the agency's first food price projections to factor in the drought, though experts have been warning for a few weeks that prices will rise. As fields dry out and crops wither across much of the country's midsection, prices for corn, soybeans and other commodities have soared in anticipation of tight supplies. That means farmers and ranchers will have to pay more to feed their livestock, and those costs eventually get passed on to consumers. Food prices typically climb about 1 percent for every 50 percent increase in average corn prices, according to agricultural economists.

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