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Consumer Prices Tick Up on Higher Grocery Bills for Beef, Milk

/ Source: Associated Press
Beef prices rose their most in more than two years in February because of drought in the West. That helped drive up consumer prices despite lower gasoline and electricity costs.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

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Consumer prices rose slightly last month, as lower gasoline and electricity costs balanced out the biggest jump in grocery bills in more than two years, with beef hitting a 10-year high.

The consumer price index rose 0.1 percent in February, matching January's increase, the Labor Department said on Tuesday. In the past 12 months, prices have risen just 1.1 percent, down from 1.6 percent in January and the smallest yearly gain in five months.

Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, core prices rose 0.1 percent last month and 1.6 percent in the past year, while core inflation has been below the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target for the past year.

Energy prices fell 0.5 percent because lower gasoline and electricity costs offset higher prices for natural gas and heating oil. Clothes and used cars were also cheaper last month.

Still, consumers took a hit at the grocery store as food costs rose 0.4 percent, the most in nearly 2-½ years. Beef prices jumped 4 percent in February, the most in more than 10 years, as recent droughts have pushed up cattle feed prices. Milk, cheese and other dairy prices also rose.

The big drop in the annual inflation rate to 1.1 percent comes as the Federal Reserve starts a two-day policy meeting, its first under new chair Janet Yellen. Low inflation has enabled the Fed to pursue extraordinary stimulus programs in an effort to boost economic growth.

The Fed is now trying to unwind some of that stimulus. It is purchasing $65 billion in bonds this month, down from $75 billion in January and $85 billion last year. The bond purchases are aimed at lowering long-term interest rates to encourage more borrowing and spending. Fed policymakers are expected to announce another $10 billion cut on Wednesday.

- The Associated Press

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