The Fourth of July cookout may cost you more this year.
Meat prices are up. But here’s why and how you can save as you plan your cookout.
How much are prices up?
Bill DeShone, co-owner of Heinnie’s in Elkhart, said that their beef prices are up 10 percent.
Beef is up as much as a dollar a pound, said Doug Stacker, director of purchasing and marketing for Troyer Foods, the retail and food-service distributor in Goshen. Chicken is up as much as 30 cents a pound.
Some items are double what they were a year ago. Pork butt, from which pulled pork is usually made, is 50 cents higher a pound than a year ago and the wholesale price is twice what it was several years ago. “I’ve never seen them this high,” Stacker said.
Why are prices higher?
There are a bunch of reasons, including disease, Chinese consumption and the usual supply and demand.
Pork, while still cheaper than beef overall, is higher because of an outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus. It could kill 10 million hogs in all, Stacker said. “That’s putting some pressure on the market,” he said.
In addition, Smithfield was purchased by a Chinese company and it’s sending pork there where demand and prices are higher, he said.
"Beef is just a supply issue,“ Stacker said. Meat packers are making money, but they’re killing 30,000 fewer cattle a week in the United States, he said. Farmers and ranchers don’t have as many cattle and the drought in the western United States isn’t making it easy to raise animals.
Chicken is more affordable, but the demand is higher. Because pork and beef are up, more people are choosing chicken, he said.
How are butchers coping?
Kevin Crouch, owner of Charlie’s Butcher Block, 1900 Berry St., Elkhart, has made some changes.
He’s trimming less off of cuts. He’s cutting fewer steaks to put in the case. And he’s not marking up his meat as much as he did from the wholesale price. ”I can’t put $15.99 (a pound) on a T-bone,“ he said.
"Do you stay in business that way? I guess I’ll see,” he said.
He used to add trimmings from his cut meat to a 95-percent-lean ground chuck blend and sell it in bulk. But he’s not selling the five- and 10-pound packages now. “I’m not trimming as much because I’m not selling as much,” he said.
He also raised the ground chuck blend from $3.79 a pound to $4.29 a pound.
He’s selling more pork and chicken because of beef prices being higher. “You can get pork chops for $4 a pound rather than steak for $8 to $15,” he said.
What’s this mean for restaurant prices?
Inevitably, if prices stay high, menu prices will go up. Mike Miles, owner of Miles Lab, 3600 E. Jackson Blvd., Elkhart, said he’s selling steaks at market price rather than set menu prices.
Most restaurant owners fight raising prices and tend to hold off as long as possible.
Are local producers able to compete against conventional beef, pork or chicken?
Miller’s Amish Country Poultry is readily available locally but is more of a specialty product because it guarantees that it’s free of hormones and antibiotics. There is some local pork and beef production, but it tends to be higher-end, even grass-fed, meat, said Stacker. Sales of those products and organic meat are growing despite the additional cost, but those local producers don’t have large herds or operations, he said.
What are customers doing in the face of rising prices?
Looking for values. Crouch said some customers admitted to him they were going to Sam’s Club to purchase meat to get a good value. But they’re not necessarily eating less meat. A story in Atlantic Monthly quoted an economist who said there aren’t enough fancy cuts of meat for consumers who want them after the recession.
What should I buy to get a good value for the Fourth of July?
Steaks are going to be expensive. But Stacker will be making chicken, bratwursts and burgers.
"You’re going to get value in poultry,“ he said.
Ground beef will be cheaper than steaks.
And sausage of any type may get you some value from being pork rather than beef and being ground rather than a cut.
And it’s prime vegetable season. Grilling a bunch of vegetables alongside some meat is probably better for your health and pocketbook at the same time.
Where should I go to get meat?
That’s up to you. Grocery stores can offer good values. Troyer’s has a retail outlet at 17141 S.R. 4, Goshen.
Elkhart County and the surrounding area has a wealth of small butcher shops offering customization and specialization. Crouch said he’ll work with customers, as he did a company who approached him recently.
"If I know you’re going to buy 100 steaks and I’ve got zero waste out of the case, I’m going to discount it,” he said.
May you have a safe and happy Fourth of July. May your grill be hot and what comes off of it full of flavor.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, email@example.com, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.