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DES MOINES, Iowa — As if trips to the grocery store weren’t nerve-racking enough, U.S. shoppers lately have seen the costs of meat, eggs and even potatoes soar as the coronavirus has disrupted processing plants and distribution networks.
Overall, the cost of food bought to eat at home skyrocketed by the most in 46 years, and analysts caution that meat prices in particular could remain high as slaughterhouses struggle to maintain production levels while implementing procedures intended to keep workers healthy.
While price spikes for staples such as eggs and flour have eased as consumer demand has leveled off, prices remain volatile for carrots, potatoes and other produce because of transportation issues and the health of workers who pick crops and work in processing plants.
In short, supermarket customers and restaurant owners shouldn't expect prices to drop anytime soon.
“Our biggest concern is long-term food costs. I believe they will continue to go up,” said Julie Kalambokidis, co-owner of Adriano's Brick Oven, a restaurant in Glenwood, Iowa.
Tamra Kennedy, who owns nine Mexican-inspired fast food franchises in Iowa and Minnesota, joined Kalambokidis on a call set up by Iowa U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne and said sometimes even getting essential ingredients is difficult.
“You can pick an ingredient and I can tell you there are shortages,” she said.
Big fluctuations in food prices began in March, when the coronavirus pandemic began to sink in for U.S. consumers.
The Labor Department reports that the 2.6% jump in April food prices was the largest monthly increase in 46 years. Prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs increased the most, rising 4.3%. Although the 2.9% jump in cereals and bakery products wasn't as steep, it was still the largest increase the agency has recorded.
Dairy and related products, and fruits and vegetables increased by 1.5 percent in April.
Egg prices also reached an all-time record of more than $3 a dozen in late March, but they have since fallen to less than $1 a dozen.
The situation has been worse for meat prices, largely because of illnesses among slaughterhouse workers. The outbreaks struck pork processing plants the hardest, but beef and chicken processors also saw some impact as thousands of workers tested positive for the virus and the United Food and Commercial Workers union said at least 44 workers had died of COVID-19 as of Friday.
April retail prices for boneless pork chops and ham were nearly 6% higher than in March and retail prices for hamburger and sirloin steak were about 4% higher, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported. The price of whole fresh chickens rose by more than 12%.
After numerous closures, most pork plants have reopened but often not at full capacity, forcing pig farmers to euthanize animals that couldn't be processed.