As grilling season heats up, meat prices rise in Beaufort County

dburley@islandpacket.comMay 11, 2014 

A national shortage of cows and pigs has raised meat prices to record highs, cutting into the business of Beaufort County butchers and restaurants.

For consumers, the spike means firing up the grill for a cookout this summer could be more costly.

"Retail prices for beef and pork cuts have steadily pushed into new record territory," said John Anderson, the American Farm Bureau Federation's deputy chief economist. It is "a trend that is likely to continue through the summer."

Unrelenting drought across large swaths of the Great Plains, Texas and California has led to the smallest U.S. cattle herd since 1951, shrinking the supply of beef.

March marked the sixth consecutive month of record retail prices for fresh beef products, at $5.40 per pound, a 23 percent increase compared with the 2010 to 2012 average, according to a report released Wednesday by the farm group.

At Islands Meat Market in Beaufort, co-owner Lin Johnson said she buys beef wholesale for about $5 a pound. That's up from about $2 a year ago.

"We knew it was coming, but it was still a huge sticker shock," said Johnson, who also attributes some of the price increase to higher feed prices.

Her business has responded by using every ounce of cow, turning leftovers into kabobs or sandwiches, she said.

Increases in beef prices have forced some restaurants to get creative.

SERG Restaurant Group, which operates Hilton Head Island steakhouses such as WiseGuys and the Black Marlin Bayside Grill, has started testing new cuts of steak, according to director of operations Robert Caldwell.

Chefs are grilling hanger steak -- a smaller, succulent morsel of meat that fetches a cheaper market price -- in addition to filet mignons, T-bones and ribeyes, he said.

In other cases, the restaurants now cut tenderloins in-house, which can be cheaper than having them butcher-sliced at a Chicago meat market, he said.

Still, "It's coming to the point where its difficult for any restaurateur to absorb these prices increases," he said.

Pork prices are up, too -- by as much as 10 percent -- since a virus never before seen in the U.S. began killing millions of baby pigs.

The farm group said the average per pound retail price for pork in March was $3.83, a national record. The group does not keep state-by-state statistics.

Pork "prices are higher than they've ever been," Jamie Harrelson, co-owner of Dukes Barbecue of Beaufort, said. "It hasn't jumped this much in my 28 years of business."

He pays $1 more for a pound of pork than he did a month ago.

It hasn't caused him to raise prices for pork hash or pulled-pork sandwiches, but he does charge 55 cents extra for the buffet, he said.

"Everybody says they understand ... they go to the grocery store, too, and see what's going on."

Butcher Adam Simoneaux said he pays a distributor 60 cents more for pork than he did last year.

"You'd be lucky to get it in the store for $3 a pound," said Simoneaux, who co-owns Scotts Market in Bluffton.

And he doesn't see an end in sight.

"It's like the $4 cup of coffee," he said. "That's where this is headed."

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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