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IN SEASON

A Cup of Unkindness

May 28, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

In most households, coffee is a staple. That means it's one of those things, like bananas, milk and toilet paper, that shoppers pick up automatically every week, without checking the price.

And it's probably a good thing. Because if folks were paying close attention, they'd be flopping in the aisles.

Retail coffee prices have been skyrocketing since the first of the year. Procter & Gamble Co. has bumped the price of Folger's four times since March, including last week's 30-cent push for a 13-ounce can. At the same time, General Foods upped Maxwell House by the same amount.

The problem is a boom in coffee drinkers and a shortage of coffee, particularly of coffee held in reserve. In 1975, world coffee consumption was roughly 75 million bags a year--about the same as production--and there were 40 million bags in storage. Today, consumption has skyrocketed to 100 million bags and by early this month, reserves had plummeted to 15 million.

As a result, the wholesale cost of coffee has more than doubled since the first of the year. Coffee that was selling for about $1 a pound wholesale at the first of the year closed higher than $2.50 a pound last week after climbing as high as $2.77 a pound.

That increase has been passed right along to consumers. A 13-ounce can of Folgers that was listing at $2.26 in February will be $3.36 with this new price increase.

Things aren't likely to get better, either. The Assn. of Coffee Producing Countries, a cartel that controls about 80% of the coffee grown in the world, voted last week to maintain its quotas at the same level as last year, which squeezes the market.

And this year's harvest in Brazil, which begins in mid-June, is predicted to be about 10% smaller than last year's. That's if everything goes right; the big thing everyone's talking about now is the possibility of a freeze, which could drastically reduce even that small crop.

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Warm weather in the Salinas Valley has pushed up production of lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli. That could be good news because of lower prices, but it could be bad news if there's damage. Watch out for lettuce that's wilted or has burnt brown tips, cauliflower that shows yellowing or an uneven head surface (what is known in the trade as "ricing"), and broccoli with browning and spreading heads.

All of California's summer fruit is in the market now, in one shape or another. Your best bets are apricots--even though the best variety, the Royal or Blenheim, is not available yet--and cherries. The fresh strawberry harvest in Southern California is winding up; make sure your berries aren't overly soft before buying them. Also, Mexican mangoes are a great buy now.

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