Gregory Bull  /  AP
A woman returns to her car after filling up at a gas station. Americans paid more for food and energy in February, new data show, but outside those volatile categories inflation was tame.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/17/2011 11:45:51 AM ET 2011-03-17T15:45:51

U.S. consumer prices rose at their fastest pace in more than 1-1/2 years in February, driven by higher food and energy prices, a government report showed on Thursday, but underlying inflation pressures remained generally contained.

The Labor Department said its Consumer Price Index rose 0.5 percent, the largest gain since June 2009, after increasing 0.4 percent in January.

Core CPI, excluding food and energy — increased 0.2 percent after advancing by the same margin in January.

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Though the rise in core CPI was a touch above economists' expectations for a 0.1 percent gain, it suggested that surging costs for energy and other commodities, which have been hitting producers and consumers alike, had yet to generate the type of broad inflation that would spur the Federal Reserve to respond.

The Fed said on Tuesday it expected the upward price pressure from commodities to be temporary but it would closely monitor inflation and inflation expectations.

In the 12 months to February, overall consumer prices rose 2.1 percent, the largest increase since April, after rising 1.6 percent in January. Core CPI rose 1.1 percent year-on-year, the largest increase in one year, after increasing 1 percent in January.

Rising food and energy prices are exerting upward pressure in some major economies and putting monetary authorities on the edge. But high unemployment in the United States, which is restraining wage growth, is seen dampening inflation pressures from the strong commodity prices.

Gas prices jumped 4.7 percent in February, above January's increase but below December's rise. Oil and gas prices have risen sharply since the beginning of the year due to political turmoil in the Middle East.

Food costs increased 0.6 percent, the most since September 2008. Food costs rose for almost all major grocery store groups, including meat and eggs, dairy and fruits and vegetables. The cost of cereals and baked goods was flat, the only group that didn't increase.

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Prices for many agricultural commodities, including corn, wheat and soybeans, have doubled since last summer due to bad weather around the globe. Those higher prices are now showing up on store shelves. Vegetable prices also soared last month due to harsh winter freezes in southern U.S. states.

More food and gas price increases are in the pipeline. The Labor Department said Wednesday that wholesale prices jumped 1.6 percent in February, the largest increase since June 2009. Wholesale food prices rose 3.9 percent, the biggest increase since November 1974.

Prices for other goods and services are recovering from very low levels. Core consumer prices increased 1.1 percent in the past year, up from a 0.6 percent annual increase in October. Still, that's below the Fed's preferred range of 1.5 percent to 2 percent.

The Federal Reserve said this week that more expensive food and energy is "currently putting upward pressure on inflation." But the central bank said the pressures are likely to be temporary. It also said that measures of underlying inflation have been subdued, a reference to core prices.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Consumer prices rising at the fastest pace in years

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