Six-year-old Everett Hanson placed his order from the seat of his mother's shopping cart: “I want steak. I want steak.”
Amy Hanson looked into the meat case Tuesday at the Papillion Fareway store and selected a tougher cut called a charcoal arm steak, at $3.49 a pound.
“I'm sure the ribeye for $7.99 is more tasty, or the sirloin for $9.99,” Hanson said. “We'd rather have either of those. But we can't afford that.”
The rising price of beef is forcing many families to re-evaluate how they eat and shop for meat, and as the Fourth of July approached — the biggest occasion of the year for beef sales — shoppers this week looked for ways to save as an economist predicted prices won't fall significantly for at least a year.
The prices, combined with a long trend of decline in U.S. beef consumption, also have beef marketers trying new tactics to spur purchases.
The widespread drought that forced ranchers across the Great Plains to cull their herds over the last several years is showing up in beef prices this year. With U.S. cattle inventory in January at its lowest point since 1952, the cost of a pound of ground beef in several categories hit highs this winter and spring and has fallen off just a few cents since. Regular ground beef cost $3.31 a pound in May and lean ground beef was $4.86, the most recent figures available.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural economist Kate Brooks has seen the prices and said she doesn't expect big increases, but added, “I don't think they're going to drop any time soon.”
Much of cattle country from Texas to Nebraska and west is still in drought rated severe and worse, and when ranchers do start rebuilding herds, it takes two years before a heifer calf is producing calves herself, Brooks said.
“As we start to rebuild our herds, our supply may go down a little more before it gets better,” Brooks said.
Vendors and consumers are adjusting.
The owner of Cactus Jack's Chuckwagon food truck based in St. Libory, Neb., raised his prices last summer, bumping up about half the menu items by 50 cents each.
“We saw it coming with the whole drought and everything,” Jeff Leo said.
Charging $7 for a third-pound house burger — topped with beef brisket — might not sound expensive in Omaha, he said, but he's competing for business in a circuit of state fairs and stock shows.
“I don't want to pass it on to the consumer,” Leo said. So instead of raising prices again this summer, Leo is running his truck with two workers instead of three.
A quarter-pound burger with a side of fries still will cost $5 at the annual July 4 VFW hamburger feed in Seward, where VFW manager Annette Wood secured ground beef from a distributor for $1.80 a pound. But Wood plans to raise prices later this year on the prime rib dinner she fixes for class reunions and other parties at her VFW hall.
The classes of 1958, 1963 and 1988 will pay $17 at their reunion this weekend, but the price will be $19 after that — a big jump from the $11 diners paid just four years ago.
“We already have bookings (for reunions) in 2018. By then, prime's probably going to be $25,” Wood said.
Americans ate more than twice as much beef as chicken in 1970; today, they eat more chicken than beef, by 27 percent. Frank Stoysich Jr. has noticed a shift recently at his 5170 Q St. butcher shop, where the Fourth of July holiday is an important time for sales.
“People are choosing maybe other proteins,” he said. “Maybe we'll do beef twice a week and then do chicken or turkey sausage. Those offer a lean protein at still an affordable price if the price of steak is not in the budget.”
The Cattlemen's Beef Board and National Cattlemen's Beef Association stepped up marketing efforts this spring. The groups behind the “Beef: It's What's for Dinner” campaign launched a new advertising effort in April geared to Generation X and Millennial consumers. The campaign highlights beef's nutritional value and protein content.
“You get the sizzle, you get the vitamins,” said Ann Marie Bosshamer, executive director of the Nebraska Beef Council.
Bosshamer said beef marketing groups also try to help consumers find beef for any price point, with tips on recipes and cooking methods for various cuts.
“We all know names like ribeye and strip steaks and sirloins,” she said. “You might try and buy a chuck eye steak, which is great on the grill as long as you marinate it.”
She also suggested people use beef as an ingredient, as in steak salads, or use smaller portions, like sliders instead of bigger burgers. And shoppers can look for deals on bigger, primal or subprimal cuts, then break them into individual portions and freeze them.
“Every consumer has a food budget that they work off of,” Bosshamer said. “We want to make sure that people know and understand that there are great deals on beef, and how to keep people enjoying beef all summer and into the fall, despite the fact that we may be seeing prices that are higher than normal.”
Conversations with shoppers at Fareway revealed that consumers are following Bosshamer's advice. The Iowa chain, known for its full-service meat departments, has noticed customers shifting to less expensive cuts of meat and searching for bargains.
Fareway Director of Market Operations Jeff Cook said he strives to keep prices at a point where sales volumes don't suffer.
“If we raise prices sky-high, the consumer's not going to buy it,” Cook said. “Sometimes we're willing to cut our margins so we can give the consumer value.”
Fareway offers sales on subprimal cuts, and its butchers will cut those down into individual portions for consumers to freeze. The volume helps keep the price per pound low.
“They'll spend more money in one shot, but they're getting a lot more steaks to put in their freezer,” Cook said.
That approach works for Shauna Lyons, who said she buys meat only at Fareway.
“You can't cut meat out of your diet,” said Lyons, shopping with two of her five children. “My husband works hard. He wants a piece of meat when he comes home. I can't just feed him a sandwich.”
Lyons estimated she spends $150 to $200 a month on meat. With higher prices, she has cut back on other areas of her budget and uses Hamburger Helper to stretch her menu.
“We all just make smaller portions, and you just make do,” she said.
Jean and Kevin Peterson of Papillion were among many shoppers who bought a 10-pound tube of ground beef at $2.39 a pound. They planned to grill hamburgers on the Fourth and save the rest in the freezer.
“You've got to watch for the sales, the weekly promotions,” Kevin Peterson said.
Adam Cubberley and Lauri Evans do the same to feed their three children. They bought ground beef, gyro meat, pork chops, bacon and minute steaks.
“You've really got to watch the ads and plan your meals around what's in the ads,” Evans said.
Jim Holder of Omaha got a deal on three pounds of porterhouse steaks that were about to hit their sell-by date.
“This is a splurge,” Holder said. He tossed the $20 package in his cart and said to himself, “Happy Fourth of July.”