Shrinking supply pushes beef prices to all-time highs

WEST PALM BEACH — With prime backyard grilling season almost here, beef prices are at all-time highs.

The U.S. beef cattle herd is at its lowest size since 1952, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rising fuel and feed costs have compounded the price hikes, which aren't expected to retreat anytime soon.

"The biggest reason beef, steak and hamburger prices are going up is because we have fewer animals," said grain markets specialist Chad Hart of Iowa State University. "The supply is shrinking. When supplies are smaller, you expect higher prices."

While food prices in general have risen this year and last, prices at the meat and cheese counters are seeing the largest increases, Hart said.

Doug Bush, sales manager at Bush Brothers Provision Co. in West Palm Beach, said beef prices have risen across the board, but ground beef is being affected the most.

The average U.S. retail price in March for ground chuck reached $3.36 a pound, up from $2.82 two years ago, according to the USDA. Lean and extra-lean ground beef increased to a U.S. average of $3.96 a pound in March, up from $3.44 two years ago.

"Seasonal demand is a huge factor," Bush said. "You start the grilling season. In summer, people are eating ground beef and not as much of the higher-end cuts as in the winter in South Florida."

But even some high-end customers are changing their habits, switching to less-expensive cuts or serving smaller sizes.

"Our client base is not necessarily the cash-strapped variety that may be around the country. A lot of our clientele expect to pay the premium price," he said. "That being said, a lot of people are looking for alternative items, whether it means instead of offering a filet mignon, offering a strip steak, or instead of a strip steak, offering a sirloin or a flat iron."

Okeechobee Steakhouse head chef Jamie Steinbrecher said that despite high beef prices, the restaurant has kept menu prices the same by keeping a close eye on total costs.

"This season was the highest I have ever seen rib-eye prices, at least 10 percent higher than I have ever seen before," he said.

Ranchers are holding back on sending animals to slaughter, Steinbrecher said, creating less supply and more demand and keeping prices high.

Also, "growers who would grow feed corn have grown corn for ethanol instead," Bush said. "Since corn is the primary feed for beef, that means cattle prices have reached an all-time high."

Shrinking supply pushes beef prices to all-time highs 04/25/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 8:30pm]

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