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Will surging meat prices extinguish the barbecue flames?

Will grilled steaks be a luxury this summer?
Will grilled steaks be a luxury this summer?
Gary Glen

As we embark upon another grilling season, be prepared for a serious dose of sticker shock at the meat counter. Beef and pork prices are at their highest level in years and relief for the consumer may not happen anytime soon.

We typically see a slight spike in meat prices during the summer months due to supply and demand. As consumers forgo their comfort foods of the winter months for quality cuts of meat for warm weather grilling, a price increase can be expected. It's basic economics, yet this year will be different...much different.

So, what's driving meat prices to these historic levels? Unfortunately, it's not a singular problem, but rather twofold with the pork industry and the beef industry each experiencing their own unique issues.

Recent droughts have finally taken their toll on the beef industry. For several years, drought has adversely affected the grasslands where more than half of the country's beef is produced. While ranchers are able to ride out short term dry conditions by feeding their stock hay and grains, the length of this drought has depleted the feed supply to the point where that option is prohibitively expensive. Feed supply is scarce.

Ranchers have only one recourse if they are to survive. They must thin out their herd to a level that they can afford to feed. Many have completely liquidated their herd and moved on. This reduction in stock has reduced the U.S. cattle inventory to the lowest level since 1950. Less supply + more demand = higher prices. It's simple math.

The solution is really up to Mother Nature, yet even with her cooperation a quick fix is improbable. Should weather conditions improve enough to repair drought-stricken pastures, replenishing cattle herds is not an overnight process. It may be several years before cattle inventory returns to pre-drought level. Until then, pray for rain and expect to dig deeper into your pockets for beef.

Unlike beef, pigs have an abundance of food. That is, if they're not too sick to eat it. A deadly pig virus is devastating pig farms across the nation.

First detected in May of 2013, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) has now spread to 27 of the nation's 50 states. The U. S. Department of Agriculture estimates that PED is responsible for a 3 percent reduction in the national pig herd. This stock reduction equates to a significant price increase for consumers.

While most pigs are afflicted with PED, larger animals can recover from it. It's the young pigs that suffer most. Pigs that are less than a month old develop such severe diarrhea and vomiting that they often dehydrate to the point of death. For pigs less than three weeks old, the virus is 100 percent fatal.

Currently, there is no cure for PED and researchers who are working on a solution state that this is one of the most contagious viruses they’ve ever encountered. On a positive note, the virus thrives in cold weather and is expected to be less prevalent as seasonal temperatures rise.

Pig farmers are battling the situation with increased sanitary precautions in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. Additionally, they are allowing the pigs to reach a higher weight before sending them to market. On average, pigs are now weighing in at six to eight pounds heavier than last year.

Despite farmers' endeavors, the only real solution is to find a cure. Until then, expect pork prices to remain unstable and generally on the rise. The devastation caused by the virus peaked during the winter months and will more than likely have its greatest impact on the consumer market around June or early July.

What's a consumer to do?
Brace yourself for higher meat prices this summer. Prices will not ease up anytime soon. Searching out sales and stocking the freezer is the best option to combat the situation. Bulk purchasing at warehouse stores such as Costco or Sam's Club will also ease the financial burden.

Under these uncertain conditions, even the best food economists are unable to predict when or how much meat prices will drop. In the meantime, frugal shopping and efficient menu planning are mandatory if one is to enjoy this year's grilling season in an economical manner.

For more ideas to help stretch the meat budget this summer, read: How to keep this summer's meat budget in check.

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