(Sept. 12, 1:08 p.m.) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Consumers say steep rises in fresh produce prices would cause them to slash consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables in favor of other options, according to a recent survey from the Produce Marketing Association.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del-based PMA, presented the survey results Sept. 9 during a workshop session at the Consumer Federation of America’s conference.

Means and other panelists in the session said consumers are changing their behavior in response to rising food prices, and the PMA survey also asked hypothetical questions about purchasing choices based on additional price hikes.

In her comments, Means noted that fresh produce prices are projected to increase about 5% to 6% in 2008, which is greater inflation than meat and fish but less than dairy, cereals and eggs.

A slowing economy and rising prices this year have resulted in tighter food budgets and more demand for food bank services.

“Consumers are switching to farmers markets and green markets and increasingly growing their own,” Means said.

Industry members have reported growth in organic sales appears to have lagged with the slowing economy, she said.

“Local is the new organic,” she said.

Means said the PMA national telephone survey of 500 consumers in May revealed that 51% of shoppers considered food cost price increases extremely serious in terms of their effect on the food consumers buy for their families. She said women, people under 25 and lower-income consumers were most likely to view food prices increases most seriously.

The survey noted an escalating effect on fresh produce demand as prices rise.

“If produce prices go up 10 cents or less per pound, most folks are going to stick with what they are doing,” she said.

The survey showed that, given that scenario of prices increasing 10 cents or less per pound, 70% of consumers would continue purchasing produce without change and another 8% said they would purchase less expensive fresh produce. Four percent of consumers said they would buy more canned fruits and vegetables and 7% said they would buy more frozen fruits and vegetables. Only 1% of consumers said they would forgo fresh produce given an increase of 10 cents or less per pound; 8% said they would grow their own.

The PMA survey showed that an increase of 11 cents to 25 cents per pound would result in 47% of those polled continuing fresh produce purchases as before and 23% shopping for less expensive fresh produce. The percent of consumers who said they would grow their own increases to 11% with this level of increase, and 3% said they would forego purchases of fresh produce. Six percent of survey respondents said they would purchase canned fruit and vegetables and 8% said they would buy frozen.

Consumers were then asked how they would change their behavior if fresh produce prices rose 26 to 50 cents per pound, and Means said 23% indicated would continue shopping for fresh produce as they always have. Meanwhile, 25% would purchase less expensive fresh produce items. At this level of increase, 11% of consumers said they would purchase canned fruits and vegetables and 12% said they would purchase frozen. Ten percent of consumers would forego fresh and 16% said they would grow their own produce.

The survey said that 23% of consumers claim they would abandon produce purchases if prices increased from 76 cents to $1 per pound. Only 10% of consumers said their purchases would remain the same with that level of increase, and 21% said they would purchase less expensive fresh produce. Twenty one percent of consumers said they would grow their own produce, while 8% of consumers said they would purchased canned and 11% say they would purchase frozen fruits and vegetables.

Finally, if prices were to increase more than $1 per pound, 24% of consumers said they would forego fresh and 27% of consumers said they would grow their own. Only 7% of consumers said they would continue purchasing fresh produce as before; 19% of consumers said they would purchase less expensive fresh produce. Seven percent of consumers said they would purchase canned and 9% would purchase frozen.

For those who said they would give up produce if prices increase, Means pointed out that 29% were not sure what they purchase in place of fresh fruits and vegetables. With increases in other food prices, Means said consumer behavior is far from certain. What’s more, what consumers say they will do and what they do are often two different things, Means noted.

“Produce prices are rising slower than most other items out there, and although there is an issue with the price of produce, produce can be part of the solution,” she said.

Means said fresh produce can be a meal extender at both home and at foodservice settings.

What’s more, she said produce offers improved nutrition compared with other foods. Means urged the conference to consider national programs are in sync with national priorities to promote healthy eating.

Pat Conroy, vice chairman of U.S. consumer products leader for Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, told the audience that 89% of consumers polled in a survey this year want retailers to sell more local produce at their stores, and 69% said they would pay more for local produce.

Other survey results showed that 57% of consumers stopped eating a particular food, at least for a short period of time, after news of a food recall.

Conroy said the survey showed consumers are open to the use of more technology at the store level. About half of consumers would like to use a bar code reader to obtain country of origin information and 56% indicated they would like to use their cell phone to scan a bar code that would tell them the “pack date” and the “use by date” for fresh produce and meat.