My beef with beef

by Tom Purcell

There are few things I enjoy more than grilling up tasty steaks for a group of close friends, but red meat isn’t going to be on the menu this summer.

The cost of beef is higher than ever.

According to Bloomberg, “Food inflation has been inching up for months, driven by soaring commodity costs, costlier transportation and challenges securing labor.”

“Inching up” is putting it lightly.

“Soaring” would be a more accurate description — thanks to COVID disruptions and the crippling government lockdown policies enacted because of them.

Restaurant Business explains that in the early months of COVID, restaurants, the largest buyers of beef, shut down – slashing demand.

If that wasn’t bad enough, says Restaurant Business, the virus spread among workers in Midwest meatpacking plants and forced them to shut down or drastically cut production in 2020.

So why are beef prices soaring in 2021 as restaurants open and life slowly begins to get back to normal?

Along with the law of supply and demand, you can thank generous government unemployment policies.

Butchering is a labor-intensive process — but this year meatpacking plants have been unable to fill thousands of job vacancies because, in many places, the combination of state and federal unemployment payments makes not working more appealing for many than working.

Since packing plants can’t fill thousands of job vacancies, they can’t process enough meat to meet the growing demand.

And since packing plants are buying less meat, cattle producers are slaughtering fewer cattle.

As growing demand for beef collided with reduced supply this spring, prices soared — and they’re likely to keep going up, according to Jason Cheplic, the third-generation owner of my favorite local butcher shop, Cheplic Packing, Inc.

“In the 60 years we’ve been in business, beef prices have never been higher,” says Cheplic. “Pre-COVID we ran a boneless Choice ribeye special for $9.99 a pound. To cover our payroll and business costs, we must now charge $13.29 a pound — at profit margins that are lower than they’ve ever been.”

That’s a 40 percent price increase in a little over one year — and Cheplic’s price for ribeye is still far better than what chain supermarkets are charging.

One local Pittsburgh chain is charging $15.99 a pound for the same cut of meat.

What this means is that weekend grill and barbecue aficionados like me are experiencing some serious pain in our pocketbooks — and stomachs.

With the summer just ahead and life slowly beginning to return to normal, I was looking forward to hosting many evening barbecues.

Before COVID, there were few things I enjoyed hearing more than the words, “Oh, my, Tom, this juicy ribeye steak is as tender as butter!”

But this year, I hope to at least hear, “Tom, this is the most delicious budget burger meat I have ever had!”

Or: “Tom, these low-cost chicken thighs are the tastiest really cheap food you’ve ever made!”

And possibly: “Tom, this meat is delicious, but why does it have an impression from a Goodyear tire tread?”

Hey, nothing but the best for my friends!

In any event, industry experts are predicting that beef prices are going to get plenty worse before they get better.

Until they come back to Earth, we weekend grill masters will have to get extra creative to keep our barbecue parties rolling along.

By the way, I was kidding about barbecuing road kill.

Tom Purcell is an author and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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