High meat prices at the grocery store have forced Susan Wheelis to turn to frozen dinners.
The Warner Robins woman recently considered buying a roast at Food Depot that was “about the size of my hand, and it was like $18,” she said.
“I was like ‘Geesh, we can’t afford this,’’’ Wheelis said. “My husband is in failing health ... so our income is very limited. Because of his health, he’s supposed to eat healthier and not supposed to have any processed foods.”
She began noticing meat prices inching higher about two years ago, but “right now they are really outlandish.”
Elevated meat prices are affecting consumers, grocery stores and restaurants across the country. A lack of supply is the main cause of the largest meat price increases in three years. Hamburger and steaks are higher because drought has caused a sharp decline in herds of cattle, while hog farms have been hit by disease.
Dawn Elliott, of Lizella, said she hasn’t bought a roast since this past spring because of pricey meat.
“When I go in Kroger, I look to see if they have any manager specials, where they have knocked something off the price, because it’s just ridiculous,” Elliott said.
Both Wheelis and Elliott said they search newspaper ads for stores with the best meat prices, and they look for other discounts.
The national average price for sirloin steak was $6.31 a pound two weeks ago, compared to $4.21 for the same date a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationally, a rump roast was $4.14 a pound two weeks ago and $3.25 a pound last year.
The domestic beef supply is at a 63-year low, according to data provided by U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, pork farmers in more than 40 states have reported cases of a pig virus that is particularly fatal to newborn pigs. The U.S. pig supply is the lowest since 2006.
Many major cattle-producing states, especially Texas, have been hit with a drought that started in 2011 that hurt grazing space for cattle. This forced farmers to thin their herds by selling their cattle, which cut the supply chain.
Even though the weather has improved some out West this spring and summer, it takes time to rebuild herds as cows have only one calf a year. It can take about 18 months before calves weigh enough to go to market.
Even if farmers rebuild their herds, consumer beef prices are expected to continue to rise until next year, experts say.
Some farmers may be more interested in selling their cattle now, as they are getting some of the best prices they’ve seen in a long time.
“Three years ago, you could buy a really good cow for around $800,” said Joseph Egloff, CEO of Rocking Chair Ranch in Monroe County. “I’ve seen some cows bringing anywhere from $2,100 to $2,250.
“I feel we are having price adjustments between everything else -- fertilizer, fuel and all the variables it takes for us to get that beef to the market. It’s now beginning to stabilize or balance.”
Egloff began increasing his herd about three years ago from 30 head of cattle to about 140.
Unlike most cattle farmers, Egloff sells his beef -- packaged and frozen -- to local stores and restaurants. In addition, he sells directly to consumers at various farmers markets including Mulberry Market in downtown Macon on Wednesdays and at Wesleyan College’s market on the second Saturday each month.
His cattle are grass- and hay-fed and don’t receive hormones or steroids.
Because Egloff has to pay more for the cows he buys, about three months ago he raised his price for ground beef from $6.50 a pound to $7.50 a pound. But he said his customers don’t seem to mind.
“More and more people want to know where their meat is coming from,” he said.
Some restaurants feel the burn
Saralyn Harvey, owner of the Good to Go restaurant in Macon, said she has been keeping an eye on the rising cost of meat for the past year.
“So far, we have not raised our prices,” Harvey said. “But if it continues through August, we will have no choice. ... You have to make a living.”
During the summer, food prices often increase “and you just try to weather that,” she said. “But I have noticed everything is astronautically high right now.”
Quite often consumers “have a misconception that our wholesale prices are just extremely lower than they can get food for, and that’s not true,” she said. “That used to be true, but it’s not true now. What you are paying at the grocery store, like at Sam’s (Club), is about what I’m paying.”
Chad Evans, co-owner of the Moonhanger Group, which operates the Rookery, Dovetail and H&H Restaurant in Macon, said recent price increases haven’t affected his business yet.
“Because of our purchasing power, we are partially insulated from it with agreements,” Evans said. “So there is a lag (in price increases). My provider insulates me for a period of time, so I don’t feel it immediately.”
Moonhanger buys exclusively from small, local farmers for Dovetail and partially for the Rookery, which helps protect the restaurants somewhat from national price trends, he said.
Pork prices may come down faster
The national pork supply should return to normal faster because a sow gives birth to several piglets at a time.
A vaccine for the pork virus is being fast-tracked and is expected to be available for pork farmers about September. The virus cannot affect humans, but it has cut into the pork supply.
Bacon and sausage prices were 14 percent higher in May than for the same month last year. This is the largest year-over-year increase since June 2011, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.
Elliott of Lizella knows all about pork prices.
“Sausage is something I have to buy about every two weeks, and within that two-week time period it almost doubled,” she said.
Elliott said she has paid $8.99 for Kroger’s store brand 30-pack bulk sausage during the past three years, but the price had jumped to $13.99 during her most recent shopping trip.
She said she has to feed a family of four, which increases to six when her stepchildren are at her home. She’s made adjustments to the family’s menu, she said.
Even though her favorite sausage item has gone up, beef is sometimes out of reach.
“Sometimes, we have breakfast for dinner, because I can’t afford the ground beef,” she said. “We eat a lot more salads at our house. On a Saturday evening, we may just do grilled cheese and chips or something like that.”
Even though Elliott sometimes prepares meals without meat, she makes one exception.
“Now on Sunday, I don’t skimp on that,” she said. “You have got to have your Sunday dinner. That is one day a week we are guaranteed a meat. We might even have an extra piece of chicken on Sunday.”
Information from the McClatchy Washington Bureau was used in this story. To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.