(March 12, 4:57 p.m.) Retail food prices showed their biggest gain in 17 years in 2007, and 2008 is projected for more of the same.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a 4% increase in the retail price of food in 2007 and forecast an increase of 3.5% to 4% in 2008.

Retail fresh produce prices mirrored the national average, increasing 3.9% in 2007, according to the USDA.

Some dispute the official government figures, however.

Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill., said in late-February that fresh fruit prices are up significantly over the past 52 weeks.

According to data collected by The Perishables Group, the retail price of fresh fruit increased 7.4% from February 2007 to February 2008. Fresh vegetable prices were up 3.9% in the same time period.

Tracking the price of fruits and vegetables is tricky compared with more shelf-stable items, Lutz said.

“It’s very hard to know the impact on the consumer since many items are seasonal and crop variations can also play a significant role in retail prices,” he said.

Jim Hertel, managing partner of retail consultant Willard Bishop Inc LLC, Barrington, Ill., said he thinks consumers might have trouble making ends meet because food is such a big part of the budget.

“(Increasing food prices) will affect consumer spending, we believe as much or more than gas prices,” he said. “That’s because most people spend more money on food than fuel on an annual basis.”

Despite the price increases, U.S. consumers still are getting a bargain, said Ed Odron president of Produce Marketing Consultants, Stockton, Calif.

“Go to other parts of the world and our prices are still reasonable,” he said. “People in the U.S. are very fortunate to have the variety, quality and consistency to be able to go to the supermarket and have the choices that they have.”

Consumers also can find bargains in any produce department, Odron said.

Grapes, for example, often are on sale for 99 cents a pound.

“What else can you buy for 99 cents a pound,” he said. “You can get asparagus for $1.99 a bunch when it’s on sale. That’s a great price for a serving that will probably feed three people.”

Odron said he doesn’t think retailers should worry about consumers purchasing less fresh produce.

“I don’t see anything changing,” he said. “That’s the way of life. The good ol’ days are behind us.”