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Pulverized by rising food prices? Fight back!

It’s not as bad as at the gas pump, but supermarket sticker shock is rising. Phil Lempert has tips to make you a savvier shopper.

Had the feeling lately that every supermarket expedition is rather like a trip to the gas station, where you come away with your wallet a lot lighter than you anticipated?

It’s not your imagination. While food prices are not rising at the same rate as gasoline, they are definitely on an upward curve. Several surveys, including those by the American Farm Bureau, are finding prices for an assortment of groceries (including cheese, eggs, chicken, bacon, apples, potatoes and vegetable oil) up 6 percent from the forth quarter of last year, and up 10 percent from the same period a year ago.

Part of the sticker shock comes from the fact that food costs have been relatively stable over the past few years. For example, December 2002 prices were up just 0.8 percent over those of a year before.

Some of the blame for the increases can be laid on the high price of gas. With the national average price for unleaded regular gasoline now more than $2 per gallon, any company that has to move merchandise is now paying more in transportation costs.

Then there are the age-old factors of supply and demand.

For instance, declining dairy supplies, hurt by the rising overall cost of farming, a drop in milk production output of 0.9 percent, as well as fears about mad cow disease, have resulted in higher prices, not just of milk but also of ice cream, butter and cheese.  And if cheese gets more expensive, that means foods that use cheese as a main ingredient, such as pizza, also start to cost more. U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that April 2004’s dairy prices went up 4.5 to 5.5 percent and eggs were up 6 to 7 percent.

And on the demand front, the increased appetite for beef fueled by Atkins and other low-carb diets — and a relative shortage of beef because of limits on imports from Canada because of mad cow disease concerns — have resulted in rising beef prices (3.5 to 4.5 percent in April alone). Also driving up the cost of beef has been the increase in prices for agricultural commodities such as wheat, corn and soybeans, all of which are fed to cattle.

The first place you’ll notice price increases for beef is at the meat counter; eventually, though, the process makes its way to the canned-goods aisle. For instance, Hormel has just increased the prices of non-refrigerated products — such as Dinty Moore beef stew and Hormel chili — by 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent.

The increased cost of agricultural goods has also led Birds Eye Foods to announce across-the-board price increases of at least 5 percent on all product categories (frozen vegetables, pretzels and salad dressings).

Bad news all around, it would seem. But there are ways to battle back, mostly by being more disciplined as you wheel your shopping cart. Here are our super-saver shopping tips:

Bring that shopping listStudies have consistently shown that shopping without a list results in 30 percent more purchases. Instead of shoppers being focused on a list of items they have determined before setting out, they tend to wander around the store grabbing goods without real regard for need or quantity.

Use those coupons
The average coupon is now valued at almost 80 cents. Not using coupons is like throwing away money (though be careful not to be tempted into purchasing products you would not otherwise buy).

Take advantage of frequent-shopper cardsMany stores now offer discounts for shoppers who use frequent-shopper cards. In effect, these act like paperless coupons. Again, be sure not to be lured into buying items you would normally ignore. Also, do not assume that because a supermarket offers low prices on a particular item that all their goods will be similarly discounted. (Stores often offer so-called “loss leaders” to get you through their doors.)

Try store brandsNot only can you save 10 to 30 percent, but almost all store brands have a money back guarantee. In addition, many of the store items are made in exactly the same factory as the higher-cost brand-name goods.

Check the shelvesInflation has yet to reach the point where it is worth searching to find a can marked with the old price hiding behind new stock. But it is worthwhile to compare the price-per-ounce labels on supermarket shelves. Don’t assume, for instance, that a larger size means a lower price per ounce.

Scope out the adsThose newspaper circulars can be annoying — but they can also be a source of great savings. You may be surprised to find that you can save 10 to 20 percent just based on where you shop.

Buy what’s on saleWhen you see a great buy for a product or brand that you normally buy, stock up (prices won’t be going down soon). But make sure you don’t over-buy, especially when it comes to goods that can spoil. For example, it’s unlikely that a five-gallon tin of olive oil will be all used up by the average family before it loses its freshness.

Phil Lempert is Food Editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or via the e-mail form below. For more new product information visit the "Today" show Web site each Wednesday for Phil’s New Product Hits & Misses. You can also visit his Web site at .