Venezuela to Loosen Price Controls to Help Curb Food Shortages

President Hugo Chavez's government plans to loosen price controls on some basic foods to help stem shortages of items like milk and cooking oil, the finance minister said.

Less than 40 percent of consumer demand is being met for at least 10 basic food items as Venezuelans struggle with shortages that have been partly blamed on price controls, Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas told The Associated Press.

"The system of regulation cannot be a set of fixed prices without modification," Cabezas told the AP Tuesday. Some of the current fixed prices will be "made more flexible," he said.

The government already lifted price controls on some types of milk earlier this month. Finding milk has become especially difficult for Venezuelans, and Cabezas said the government estimates the meager supply of milk is meeting only 10 percent of consumer demand.

Chavez imposed price controls in 2003 in try to keep a cap on inflation, but prices continue to rise amid a briskly growing economy and heavy government spending bankrolled by soaring oil profits.

Inflation surged to 4.4 percent last month alone, sending annual inflation in the past 12 months to 18.6 percent.

Many foods covered by the price controls -- sugar, cooking oil, milk, black beans, eggs and fresh chicken -- are hard to find in supermarkets, and Chavez's critics warn shortages are likely to persist as long as the controls are maintained.

Economists say milk is also especially scarce due a lack of production within Venezuela and an international scarcity of milk to import.

Cabezas said price controls on milk, sugar and cooking oil would be adjusted to deal with the scarcity of some products "in the short term," but stressed that controls will not be lifted completely.

Government officials accuse producers of hoarding basic goods to try to sell them at inflated prices for a larger profit. Some food producers and importers counter that selling products subject to price controls is no longer profitable.