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May 27, 2014 7:19 am

EDITORIAL: Rising beef costs are taking bigger bite on budgets

Written by Tom Lawrence

Many of us enjoy sinking our teeth into a hamburger. Add cheese, lettuce, pickles, mustard, ketchup, onion — whatever trips your tastebuds.

We don’t need National Hamburger Day and Month, which are both being observed in May, to remind us how satisfying a burger can be when you’re hungry. As summer dawns, a lot of people are eager to fire up the grill and put the heat to meat.

So here’s to the humble hamburger, a mainstay of the American menu. No matter how you cook it or top it, burgers are a favorite.

The Wyoming Beef Council reports that Americans eat 14 billion burgers a year, 60 percent of all sandwiches sold. If you put all of those burgers in a line, they would circle the earth more than 32 times. Just think about all that ketchup!

But that circle may be growing a little smaller. It’s getting more and more difficult to afford meat, including hamburger, now.

Bacon and beef are the two fastest-rising items as grocery prices are spiking. Bacon’s cost has increased a sizzling 53 percent in four years, according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average cost in March was $5.55 per pound.

Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea, a virus that greatly reduced the number of baby pigs, is being blamed in part for that. The National Pork Producers Council estimates the nation’s hog supply may shrink by 10 percent this year.

Beef, especially lean and extra-lean ground beef, has jumped 35 percent in four years. As the price for live cattle, which are ready for slaughter, reaches an all-time high, ground beef sells for well over $4 a pound, and tops $5 a pound for lean beef.

These rising grocery costs are linked to drought, less land set aside for pasture and grazing land as farmers rush to plant profitable crops, and other factors. But for most people, all it means is more money for less food.

A United States Department of Agriculture report, “Major Uses of Land in the United States,” showed that from 1949-2007, over 245 million acres of grasslands were lost, a decline of 24 percent. That is continuing, as farmers plow up range and grassland to plant row crops, which are also rising in value, making them more attractive for farmers.

Another factor is the aging American farmer, who is now on average around 58 years old. Fewer farmers want to spend the time and effort involved in raising cattle.

For all those reasons, the American cattle herd is shrinking. On Jan. 1, it was estimated there were 87.99 million head of cattle in the country, the lowest total since 1951.

There’s something else to consider. A lot of our meat is headed east, since people in China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian nations are increasingly hungry for more protein and more beef.

According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, the U.S. exported 130,112 metric tons, or $823 million worth, of beef to Hong Kong/China in 2013. The U.S. also exported $1.39 billion in beef to Japan in 2013.

That’s good news to cattle ranchers and other businessmen, but it helps raise the price of our steaks and burgers here. It also adds a little heartburn to those of us who, while we support our cattle producers and packers, realize the price of a burger will likely remain on the rise.

National Hamburger Day is Wednesday. We plan to have one or two that day, and would encourage burger lovers to do so as well.

Just be prepared for it to take a bite out of your budget.

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