As Memorial Day weekend approaches, so does barbecue season. It’s practically an American tradition to fire up the grill during the final weekend in May. In fact, May 28 is “National Burger Day,” and according to PBS.org, Americans eat nearly 50 billion hamburgers a year.
This year, consumers will pay more than they ever have for a pound of ground beef, as beef prices are at an all-time high in the United States with little hope of the cost dropping any time soon.
Rising beef prices are being blamed on years of drought throughout the Western and Southern U.S., especially in Texas and California. As the dry weather continues, feed prices are also spiking to record highs. Many ranchers are opting to simply sell their herds now, rather than risk losing more money from inflated costs to raise their cattle.
That created a temporary surplus of beef cows for slaughter, but just like the corn and hay used to feed cattle, the cow surplus has dried up. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the cattle population in the U.S. is close to 88 million, the lowest cattle count in more than 60 years.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nationwide average cost of a pound of uncooked ground beef was $3.82 in April 2013. Since then, the cost has risen 10 percent and averaged $4.22 a pound last month.
Ground beef is sold by how lean the beef is, with the leaner blends typically being higher priced.
Last week, the best local prices in the Aspen and Basalt areas ranged from $3.69 a pound for 8 percent lean at Clark’s Market, to $3.99 a pound for 93 percent lean at City Market.
Consumers also can chose to buy natural beef, or beef that is raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and are fed a diet of natural grains and grasses free from animal byproducts.
Clark’s Market sells Maverick Ranch ground beef at 91 percent lean that was going for $10.89 a pound, while City Market sells Crystal River Meats ground beef at 85 percent lean for $7.99 a pound. Whole Foods in Basalt also sells Crystal River ground beef that is currently on sale at $4.49 a pound for 80 percent lean.
John Hailey, general manager at the Aspen City Market, has watched the cost of ground beef climb for the past several years.
“Ground beef used to always be the cheapest option,” Hailey said. “But not anymore. The cattle market is challenged right now, and the cost of feed has really gone up. We’re doing our best to offer affordable options and encourage customers to shop the specials. If you look at prices right now, chicken is the best deal. You can buy fresh chicken breasts for $1.99 a pound, and that’s a solid deal. Ground turkey at $2.49 a pound is another affordable option and is much healthier for people than ground beef.”
Jim Strickbine is the manager at The Butcher’s Block in Aspen. He said he has seen a rise in pork-product sales as beef prices continue to climb, but he said his customers understand that The Butcher’s Block tries to sell a higher quality product, and they realize it may be a little more expensive than buying from a chain grocery store.
“We use trim from our primal cuts to make our ground beef,” he said. “That includes New York, rib eye and even some tenderloin steak trim. We’ll blend some round steak in it as well to add some fat content, which gives the meat some extra moisture. There’s really an art to making our ground beef.”
The Butcher’s Block ground beef is selling for $7.95 a pound and is generally around 85 percent lean, but can made leaner by request.
Strickbine said another way they keep prices as low as possible comes from the buying skill of owner Jack Frey. Frey, who has more than 50 years experience as a butcher and as a buyer, knows his product well.
“Jack knows how to purchase the best quality meats,” Strickbine said. “That leads to less waste on our end and helps us maintain our prices.”
T.C. Turner manages the meat department at Whole Foods in Basalt. He’s watched beef prices climb at a steady rate nationally and said he’s always looking for ways to offer the consumer a better deal.
“We sell only natural beef from Crystal River Meats in Carbondale,” Turner said. “Our ground beef is on sale right now, but I like to let people know we can help with costs by grinding ground beef fresh from other solid muscle meats, like chuck or round steak. Right now our naturally grown chuck steak is $3.99 a pound. We’ll grind the chuck for no extra charge, and it makes some of the best burger you’ll ever try.”
Restaurants also are feeling the effects of rising beef costs and also are having to be creative to combat raising menu prices. Brad Smith, the owner and manager of The Red Onion in Aspen, said this winter, his chef locked in a solid bulk price for beef that will continue through the end of this summer.
“We anticipated the price of beef to continue going up,” Smith said. “By locking in a fair price, we’re able to keep the cost of our hamburger the same without cutting back on the size or quality.”
Aspen resident Kelly Fravel was at The Red Onion on Saturday and said he’s watched prices for beef and other foods climb steadily since 2008. He said getting a quality hamburger at The Red Onion for under $15, especially being in Aspen, is a real bargain.
“I was at a grocery store here recently and saw an organic T-bone steak for $45,” Fravel said. “I almost took a picture of it to send to my friends who always comment how much of a paradise Aspen is. They obviously aren’t taking the cost of living into account.”
The one thing that all the stores agreed on was the consumer has to be savvier these days and watch for special sales and deals.
“Customers need to take a little extra time and do some comparative shopping,” Hailey said. “Watch those specials and buy bulk when you can. Beef prices look like they’re going to keep climbing, but we’ll continue to offer the best deals we can.”