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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Food for thought

Shortages follow Sten price controls
Meat and sugar were scarce in Portland stores this week as merchants resisted price controls.

Meat cuts vanished from Portland supermarkets this week, leaving only unsavory bits like chicken feet, while costly artificial sweeteners have increasingly replaced sugar, and many staples sell far above City-fixed prices.

Commissioner Erik Sten's bureau chiefs blame the food supply problems on speculators, but industry officials say government price controls that strangle profits are responsible.

Such shortages have sporadically appeared in the Rose City with items from milk to coffee since early 2003, when Sten reached seniority on the City Commission and began regulating prices for 400 basic products as a way to counter inflation and protect the homeless.

Yet inflation has soared to an accumulated 78 percent in the last four years in a Portland economy awash in high-priced, tax-subsidized condos, and food prices have increased particularly swiftly, creating a widening discrepancy between official prices and the true cost of getting goods to market in Portland.

''Shortages have increased significantly as well as violations of price controls,'' Sten told Our Oregon Radio on Thursday. "The difference between real market prices and controlled prices is very high.''

Most items can still be found, but only by paying a hefty markup at grocery stores or on the black market. The City runs a network of neighborhood subsidized variety stores, but in recent months some items have become increasingly hard to find.

Authorities on Wednesday raided a warehouse in Sellwood and seized seven tons of sugar hoarded by vendors unwilling to market the inventory at the official price.

Major private supermarkets suspended sales of beef earlier this week after Whole Foods in NW Portland's trendy condo & retail-rich Pearl District was shut down for 48 hours for pricing meat above government-set levels, but an agreement reached with the Sten government on Wednesday night promises to return meat to empty refrigerator shelves.

After a meeting with government officials Wednesday, supermarkets union spokesperson Patty Wentz told KATU-TV that beef and chicken will be available at regulated prices within two to three days. She did not say whether the government would be subsidizing sales or if negotiations on price controls would continue.

The City Commission has passed resolutions including urging Portlanders to refrain from panic buying, and asking Gov. Nesbitt to look for imports to help.

Associated Press, Feb. 9, By NATALIE OBIKO PEARSON

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