Is climate change driving up the price of your favorite burger or steak?
Just as the summer grilling season heats up, beef prices in the U.S. have reached their highest level in almost 30 years with the Great Plains, Texas and California entering their fourth year of drought. In Columbia, that has pushed burger prices up by 50 cents at one restaurant with others considering price hikes.
The average retail price per pound of fresh beef climbed to $5.28 in April, up 5.4 percent from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That could make summer cookouts and dining out more expensive than they have been in years – and the price spikes might not be over yet.
The unrelenting drought, which experts say could be worsened by rising global temperatures, has contributed to the smallest U.S. cattle herd since 1951.
Meanwhile, at Pawley’s Front Porch in Columbia’s Five Points, the cost of a hand-ground burger has risen by 50 cents since last year.
“It’s a killer,” owner Kirkman Finlay said of the rising beef prices. “I’m ready for it to be over.”
Pawley’s goes through 2,000 pounds of chuck a week. Finlay said that in the past three drought-savaged years, the wholesale price of chucks rolls, as the cuts the restaurant uses are called, has gone up from $1.80 to as high as $3.69 in January and February.
“I’m trying to put those days out of my memory,” he said. “For a while it was going up 20 cents a day.”
Today, that same cut from the neck area of the cow is selling for $2.75 to $2.80 a pound.
Also affecting prices is increasing international demand from China and other countries for U.S.-produced beef, said Roy Copelan, executive director of the S.C. Beef Council. “When you have a short supply, prices tend to rise,” he said.
Customers who still want to enjoy steak, but can’t afford the higher prices of the premium cuts – between $14.95 and $18.95 a pound for filets and T-bones – are choosing “middle meats,” such as flat iron and chuck iron, which cost $5.99 to $8.99 per pound, Copelan said. “They are ideal for grilling,” he said.
And restaurants are dressing up ground beef – which is even cheaper at $2.99 to $4.99 per pound retail – to create “gourmet burgers,” with more extra condiments and toppings than traditional burgers, he said.
One place that isn’t cutting corners – but is considering a price hike because of rising costs – is Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse in Columbia.
The Main Street eatery serves all-you-can-eat beef, chicken and pork carved at table-side and served with a 30-plus-item hot and cold bar. The cost is $32.
Manager Marie Rich said the restaurant, which sells about 1,000 pounds of high quality steak a week, is contemplating a hike in prices soon.
“Hopefully it will just be 10 percent,” she said. “It’s been a tough decision. Up until now we have just absorbed it.”
Cowboy serves one of the highest grades of beef, called coulette, which is a top sirloin cap steak. She said the restaurant has no plans to go for a less expensive cut.
“We won’t do any of that,” she said. “So we have to watch our waste.”
Because the restaurant is all you can eat, “we have to be particular about what we put on the grill at the end of the evening.” If too much food is put out, it could go to waste.
Meanwhile, at Pawley’s, Finlay also is trying to find a way to deal with high prices without pricing himself out of the market.
“Waste is always an issue,” he said. “And we have to really work on our special, making sure that the food costs are where they are supposed to be. For us, the prices of bacon, beef and cheese are everything.”
BY THE NUMBERS
50 cents - The rise in the price of a burger at Columbia’s Pawley’s Front Porch over the past year. The restaurant goes through 2,000 pounds of ground chuck a week.
5.4% - The increase in the average retail price per pound of fresh beef in the U.S. in April from a year ago
63 years ago - Last time U.S. cattle herd was as small as it is today