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Food prices soar just in time for Memorial Day barbecues

NEW YORK - Hamburgers and hot dogs? Check. Lighter fluid? Check. Beer? Check. More money?

Americans are about to fire up their barbecues for the start of the summer cookout season, and one thing has become painfully apparent: It's going to cost a lot more than it did last year to roast a burger, or just about any other barbecue favorite, on the grill.

Food inflation is the highest in almost two decades, driven by record prices for oil, gas and mounting global demand for staples such as wheat and corn, and for proteins such as chicken. And that's reaching into Americans' backyards.

The price of an average barbecue - with burgers, hot dogs, beer, soda, condiments, salad, paper plates and lighter fluid - could run families about 6 percent more than last year.

That's making shoppers pause as they fill their carts for the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of the barbecue season.

'I'm finding myself questioning every purchase, wondering if it's gonna get eaten or if we really need it,' said Tony Caballero, an advertising and marketing consultant, as he filled his cart with paper plates at a Food Emporium in New York City. 'When you do your everyday shopping, you try to cut corners. But it's a shame to have to scale down when you're trying to throw a party.'

The consumer price index for food rose 4 percent last year, compared with an average 2.5 percent annual rise for the last 15 years. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture raised its forecast for next year by half a percentage point, to a range of 4.5 to 5.5 percent.

Basic economics account for most of the increase: Bad weather has hurt crops, economic prosperity has driven up demand in developing countries and surging fuel prices have raised transportation costs.

Economists and food scientists have argued that biofuel production is also a major factor in rising food costs, particularly corn, and that it should be scaled back. Meat and poultry executives have come out against federal ethanol mandates, which they say is driving the cost of corn higher.