Beef prices near record as grilling season gets under way
DENVER Consumers arent likely to get any pocketbook relief when they buy steaks and burgers for the barbecue this summer.With the grilling season in full swing, retail beef prices have lingered near record highs as supplies have remained fairly tight and more people have been buying beef. Some in the industry also cite rising fuel costs as a factor.Mike Pissare, owner of Sir Loin Meats & Fresh Seafood in suburban Aurora, said he heard prices were raised to offset higher costs for animal feed and transportation. It started with the drought and now its the gas prices, he said.Retail prices for choice beef averaged $4.25 a pound in April, the latest figure available from the Agriculture Departments Economic Research Service. It was the second highest monthly price on record behind $4.32 a pound reported in November 2003 when the market was adjusting to the cutoff of Canadian imports due to a case of mad cow disease.Beef prices have probably reached a high for the year because now is when people get serious about barbecuing and now is when feedlot performance is low, said Ron Gustafson of the Agriculture Departments Economic Research Service.June prices should drop slightly, to roughly $4 to $4.10, because demand will ease and supplies will increase, Gustafson said.Fathers Day and Memorial Day are typically thought of as being more the barbecue season, he said. Fourth of July is, but its really hamburgers and hot dogs more than steaks.The price hikes come as ranchers have been battling back from two devastating setbacks the effects of four cases of mad cow disease in North American cows, including one found in the United States, and a drought that gripped much of the nation.People who eat meat contaminated with mad cow disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, can contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain disease that incubates for years after exposure. Since the mid-1990s, the disease has killed nearly 150 people, most of them in Britain.With the discoveries, the Agriculture Department closed the Canadian border to cattle shipments in May 2003.Ranchers cut back on herd sizes after the drought diminished grass available to feed the animals. The nations cattle inventory peaked at 103.5 million head in 1996; as of Jan. 1, it measured 95.8 million head, according to Agriculture Department statistics.At the same time, beef consumption has climbed 25 percent since 1998 to 27.6 billion pounds last year.The easing of the drought has prompted some ranchers to begin expanding herds for the first time in five years, said economist Gregg Doud of the National Cattlemens Beef Association.We are on the upward swing on the size of our breeding herd right now, he said. The part that may frustrate some is you wont see the effects in the grocery store until 2007.The beef supply this year is expected to be higher than it was a year ago but still below the historical average, he said.Since 1999, average beef prices have increased every year, from $2.87 to $4.06 a pound in 2004, according to the research service.Consumers are likely to find good value this summer in loin and end cuts, such as chuck, London broil and the relatively newer cuts such as flat iron steak and the petite tender, Doud said.How much of a bargain will depend on retail promotions, says Cattle Fax research director Mike Miller. Nothing thats going to completely derail the industry but we do expect prices to soften from here, he said.Danielle Fitzgerald of Denver says beef is just one of a number of items that are more expensive this year. It doesnt make sense because we have a hard economy where people arent getting jobs and yet everythings more expensive, she said. It just makes for desperation, really.Doud admits that beef products still are more expensive than other meats. Pork and poultry do have the angle on us early in the year. They are a better value, he said. I hate to say that, it just pains me.Associated Press Writer Libby Quaid in Washington contributed to this story.On the Net:National Cattlemens Beef Association: http://www.beefusa.orgEconomic Research Service: http://www.ers.usda.gov/
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