Grilling season brings mixed bag of meat prices

Briskets, steaks cost more while pork spareribs, chicken wings have tumbled from record prices.

June 1, 2023

4 Min Read
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Grilling season has begun, and consumers should expect a mixed bag when it comes to meat options for summer cookouts, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.

David Anderson, AgriLife Extension economist, Bryan-College Station, said the summer grilling season typically kicks off during Memorial Day weekend, as Americans come together to celebrate and remember the nation's military veterans.

This year, consumers will likely see lower prices for some grilling favorites like pork spareribs and chicken wings, and higher prices on beef favorites like briskets and steaks, Anderson said.

"It looks like we should be able to find some deals on chicken and pork for cookouts, but retail beef prices continue to stay high on most cuts. Even ground beef for hamburgers is a little higher this year compared to this time last year."

Brisket, burgers cost more at start of grilling season
Wholesale beef prices are higher across primal cuts, and Anderson attributes the rising prices to lower beef production. Beef production is down 5% compared to last year, when the U.S. set a record.

"We've had a shrinking beef cattle herd the last few years, and so many cows and heifers went to market because of drought," he said. "Demand doesn't seem to be slowing, which is contributing to higher retail prices."

Wholesale 90% lean ground beef was up slightly – $2.77 per pound this year compared to $2.73 per pound last year, while 50% lean grinds were $1.89 per pound compared to $1.05 per pound last year.

Brisket prices stumbled after peaking at $3.05 per pound for choice primal cuts in September 2021, but they have been climbing in recent weeks. Anderson said wholesale choice brisket was $2.31 per pound last week compared to $2.09 per pound this time last year, a slight discount from the five-year average of $2.54 per pound.

"Briskets got so expensive; prices were so high that people were buying fewer, and I think some restaurants may have even cut back and been willing to run out of barbecue," he said. "Folks may notice higher brisket prices, but they've been higher."

Steaks were also priced higher this year compared to 2022. Anderson said choice ribeye steaks were $8.92 per pound wholesale compared to $8.54 per pound a year ago. But the increase is well below the price for the same cut just last month – $10.70 per pound.

"I suspect some spot buying by grocers to make sure they had specials going into the holiday drove prices up some," he said. "But those prices came down in the runup to the Memorial Day weekend."

Pork, poultry prices fall as grilling season kicks off
Chicken and pork prices have tumbled from record high prices, Anderson said.

For instance, chicken wing prices, after skyrocketing in recent years, have come back down to Earth. Anderson said wholesale wings were 88 cents per pound compared to $1.86 per pound last year. Chicken breasts have also fallen from a record high of $3.35 in May 2021. Wholesale breasts were $1.39 per pound compared to $3.56 per pound this time last year.

Anderson noted that grocery stores were more willing to feature chicken cuts on special compared to last year. Features are items grocery stores run special prices on to attract customers. Grocery store special features on poultry were double – 14% versus 7% — what they were last year. 

Wholesale pork prices have experienced similar declines, he said. Spareribs, a classic barbecue offering, were $1.44 per pound compared to $2.41 per pound last year. Bellies, which deliver another pork powerhouse – bacon – were 97 cents per pound compared to $1.65 per pound. Hams and pork butts are the only pork cuts that increased. 

Low wholesale pork prices may translate into better prices for consumers, but they are hurting pork producers, Anderson said. Low cutout prices are making it difficult for farmers to break even despite lower feed prices.

"There are some pretty great items on the pork and poultry side for consumers," he said. "But the pork industry is struggling."

Consumers still seeing high retail prices
Anderson said wholesale prices for beef, pork and poultry may have experienced ups and downs, but that retail prices have remained relatively high.

The price margin between wholesale packer prices and what consumers pay at grocery checkouts is historically large, Anderson said. Higher fuel and electricity costs as well as wages, packaging and other costs all contribute to the wholesale-retail rift. 

Retail pork, for instance, is lower than last year, $4.73 per pound compared to $4.89 per pound, but much higher than the five-year average of $3.90 per pound.

Unemployment is very low, gas prices are lower, wages are higher and the economy is growing despite a difficult run of inflation, he said.

"Overall, people are still buying, and prices aren't high enough to change some habits that might make retailers drop prices on some items that are more in line with wholesale prices," he said. "But those changes are never immediate, and the ups and downs in retail are hardly ever as dramatic as wholesale because stores don't want to drive customers away with big price swings."

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