Seeing red over meat
Beef prices soar 45% to record highs
By WILLIAM SHERMAN
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
link to article
Beef prices are stampeding New York City and the nation, rising more than 45% over last year to record highs.
From lowly tripe and oxtail to exquisitely marbled and aged prime sirloin - now at $42.98 a pound at one Madison Ave. butcher - the price of every beef product has soared, almost doubling in some cases.
Consumers are being hit hardest by the surge, triggered this summer by the ban on Canadian beef imports following a minor outbreak of mad cow disease in that country.
Some restaurants and other food purveyors also are getting burned in the spiral, choosing to absorb the price hike rather than risk losing business.
The price increase boils down to this: Supply is not matching demand. More than 500 million pounds are off the American market with the Canadian ban, and the domestic cattle herd is down 7.4 million head since 1996. An increasing appetite for beef products and skinnier steer also are contributing to the meat squeeze.
Many cattlemen are bringing their animals to slaughter sooner than usual to take advantage of the current high prices, according to federal agriculture economists.
"On Oct. 25, the average cow coming to market was 28 pounds lighter than a year ago," said Shayle Shagam, a Department of Agriculture livestock analyst.
The growing popularity of the protein-heavy Atkins diet also was cited as a demand factor by Shagam.
On the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where cattle commodity prices are set, traders have been stunned.
"Putting it all together, it's been the 'perfect storm' for beef prices," said Charles Leavitt, senior livestock analyst for Alaron Trading Corp.
"I've been here 40 years, and far and away this is the all-time high," he said.
In supermarkets throughout New York, customers are sizzling.
At a Pathmark in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Tracy Mothershed bought some beef rib steaks at $9.29 a pound and commented: "I do buy less meat. We're eating more chicken and we end up buying more fish."
It was the same in Queens.
"We used to eat beef at least three times a week, but now since the prices have gone up we only have it once a week," said Irelis Sierra, poring over the selection at an Astoria market. "Chuck steaks used to be $6 for two in a pack, and now it's $13 to $15. That's ridiculous," said Sierra, a housewife with a family of six.
In Manhattan, at Cuzins Meat Market on Ninth Ave., owner Giulio Eliseo ticked off some of the rising prices at the wholesale level and how they are affecting customers.
"Here's a 20-pound shoulder of beef," he said. "That's chuck steaks, beef stew meat, chicken steaks, silver tip roast and bone cross rib. I was paying $1.05 a pound early in the summer and selling to customers at $2.99 a pound. Now I'm paying $1.95 a pound and selling it at $3.99.
"Tripe and oxtail used to be the poor man's food," Eliseo said. "No more. My cost for honeycomb tripe was 89 cents a pound at the end of July; now it's $1.79. Oxtail was $1.50. Now it's $2.89."
The high end of the meat market - where the fattest, juiciest and most expensive aged prime meat is sold - is experiencing the biggest shortage.
Last spring, the giant locker at Walmir Meats on Washington St. was packed with prime beef for sale to the city's finest steakhouses.
"If I can get it, I'm paying more than $3 a pound for a 200-pound hindquarter, and I throw away 40% of that - it's fat - and now my cost for the hindquarter is $900," said Miro Ramos, Walmir's owner. "Nobody's happy: not me, not the restaurants - because it's hard for them to get their money out of a steak."
Peter Luger Steak House In Brooklyn, for example, is paying "60% to 70% more than we were in April," according to Jodie Storch, vice president of the family-owned restaurant.
But the restaurant is eating most of the prime price increase.
"The irony is, we're packed every day, doing better than ever, but we're making less money per steak," Storch said.
Sparks Restaurant, on E. 46th St., is not passing increased costs to customers, holding the menu line for its 1.5-pound boneless sirloin at $35.95, according to owner Michael Cetta.
"I've been here 30 years, and our policy is to sweat out the price spikes, so now the hit we're taking is bigger than usual," he said.
Remarkably, those aged prime steaks at Peter Luger and Sparks actually cost a bit less per pound than the same meat at several high-end Manhattan butchers.
At Oppenheimer Meats, 99th St. and Broadway, aged prime sirloin and porterhouse cuts cost $27.50 a pound. At Citarella, 74th St. and Broadway, porterhouse is $27.99 a pound and boneless sirloin is $29.99 a pound.
The highest prices are charged at Lobel's Meats, 82nd St. and Madison Ave. New York strip there goes for $42.98 a pound.
"I've got the wealthiest people in New York, and some of the wealthiest people around the world coming to me for meat, and they don't care about the price," said Stanley Lobel, an owner.
With Ruth Bashinsky and Hugh Son
Originally published on November 5, 2003