A little good news: Food prices decline

CHICAGO — While prices may still seem high in the supermarket aisles, long-suffering consumers are beginning to see a break in grocery bills — a bit of good news amid economic gloom.

Falling raw material costs coupled with a feeble economy have curbed soaring food inflation in recent months. Food prices fell on a month-to-month basis in February for the first time since April 2006.

Last year, food and beverage prices rose 5.4 percent as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest annual jump since 1990, because of a big run-up in commodity and energy costs.

But as the global economy tanked in late 2008, prices for oil, corn, wheat and soybeans fell. Those declines, after a predictable lag, are filtering down to grocery shelves, said Ephraim Leibtag, a Department of Agriculture economist.

Last month, the consumer price index food-and-beverages component fell 0.1 percent from January, and Leibtag said he expects further month-to-month declines.

“The decline we saw last month is what we have been expecting, given the decline the global economy and the decline of commodity prices,” he said.

But Leibtag hasn’t changed his food inflation forecast of 3 percent to 4 percent for 2009. Still, given the depth of the recession, he said the increase should be closer to 3 percent, not 4 percent, as he thought at the start of the year