Sticker shock at the store

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I seldom buy beef in the grocery store. Thankfully the family business keeps us with a stocked freezer, and the only time I need to buy beef is when I’m “in-between” steers. I do, however, purchase pork and chicken at the store. Being just the two of us, I can’t justify a whole or even half a hog in the freezer, and my childhood-induced phobia of chickens keeps me from raising birds for meat or eggs. 

On a recent trip to a local store, I thought I would grab a pork roast to throw on the smoker; then, I looked at the price. Let’s just say I had a case of sticker shock and no smoked pork was served at my house.

A recent Washington Post article states processing bottlenecks at the packers because of COVID, higher feed prices, increased fuel costs, hoarding and panic buying last spring, and general inflation is to blame for the increase in meat prices. Some consumers see these exorbitant prices in the store and think the farmers are getting rich on $9 a-pound steaks, but we all know that’s far from the truth. The farmers and ranchers are on the bottom of the rung of the supply ladder. Farmers and ranchers get what they get, then everyone else up the ladder pads their pockets for profits. Looking at a local grocery store circular, I see beef roasts “on-sale” for $7.99 a pound. The average price for a 1,000-pound steer in the Ozarks? About $1.13 to $1.32 a pound, depending on the markets. Why such a gap? Just go up the ladder.

A report released earlier this year states the four big packers in the U.S. make about $1,000 profit from each beef it processes, while the feedlots only make about $100. The packers are the ones to make the most profit off the labor of the little guys. Federal probes aren’t making any headway in the issue either. It’s not the first time there have been concerns about the packing plant monopolies. In 1919, the Federal Trade Commission reported the same problem, and mergers of packing companies in the 1980s caused waves that keep taking the legs out from under producers today. 

The packers aren’t the only ones making profits. Start tacking on retail markups, and that calf worth only $1.32 a pound now costs a whole lot more, making it nearly impossible for many families to afford. 

We see more farmers and ranchers taking their livestock out of the packers’ hands, but not every producer can make that move, and getting appointments at local processors is still tricky. Many consumers can’t afford to buy a whole or half beef or hog, pay for processing or have the freezer space to store the meat, so they remain chained to the packers and the grocery stores. 

A recent report said consumers should also expect to see rising prices of other food items. The U.S. Department of Labor reported in May that consumer prices hit their highest level in 13 years, jumping 5 percent from the previous year. This, according to the report, has been caused by increased fuel costs, supply-chain issues, and labor shortages. Same old song and dance as the meat industry.

Not everyone has space or the knowledge to produce their own food; that’s why they depend on farmers and ranchers. However, it takes everyone on the supply ladder to buckle down and reduce their profit margins. It’s something farmers and ranchers get told to do every day. It’s time for those up the ladder to do the same thing. 

Could I have purchased the cut of pork and still had the money for my other grocery items? Yes, but it seemed like an extravagance, just like the certain brand of baked beans my husband loves that were “on-sale” for about $7 a pint (he didn’t get those either). Consumers should never have to think of food, no matter what kind of food it is, as an extravagance.

Julie Turner-Crawford is a native of Dallas County, Mo., where she grew up on her family’s farm. She is a graduate of Missouri State University. To contact Julie, call 1-866-532-1960 or by email at [email protected]

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