(May 16, 1:14 p.m.) Of major grocery store food categories, produce saw the biggest percentage up tick in price from March to April.

Consumers paid about 2% more for fruits and vegetables in April, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics released May 13.

The cost of produce went up more than the cost of nonalcoholic beverages (up 1.7%); cereal and bakery products (1.4%); dairy (1.2%); and meats, poultry, fish and eggs (0.9%).

All major grocery categories saw price increases in April, according to the government figures.

Within the produce category, fresh fruit prices increased 3.2%. Fresh vegetable prices actually declined, falling 0.2% from March to April.

Higher prices have become enough of a hot-button issue that in June the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association plans to conduct research to find out if and how consumers are changing their shopping patterns as a result, said Kathy Means, PMA’s vice president of government relations.

“It’s an issue everybody is starting to look at more closely, and the expectations are this is something that isn’t going to turn around anytime soon,” Means said.

On the one hand, Means said, there are fears consumers might turn from fresh produce to foods they perceive as being cheaper.

On the other hand, when PMA polls consumers, they often find fruits and vegetables are often used as a meal extender.

Cost considerations may, for instance, convince consumers to buy a smaller steak and to supplement it with a salad, Means said.

The produce industry’s marketing challenge, Means said, is to convince consumers fresh produce often is a less expensive food option than they think.

That may be a hard sell, though, said Bill Bishop, chairman of Willard Bishop LLC, Barrington, Ill.

“The challenge with produce is it starts out as a relatively expensive product on a per-unit basis,” he said. “If you have a fixed budget and all you’re doing is buying for calories, you can buy in other parts of the store more cheaply.”

Within the produce department, Bishop said he expects more consumers to buy more potatoes and other less-expensive items and fewer high-priced items, such as berries.

Dick Spezzano, president of Spezzano Consulting Services, Monrovia, Calif., said he thinks produce could benefit from an across-the-board increase in food costs.

“My experience has been that as prices go up, those are some of the best times for the produce department,” he said.

Even when the cost of bananas, for instance, goes up 25% or more, as it has in recent months, it’s all relative, Spezzano said.

“It’s still a cheap fruit,” he said.