This post is talking strictly about the large commodity meat industry and not about small local processors. In the past few months we’ve seen a steady increase in meat prices on the commodity level. Large meat processors are limiting production due to a variety of reasons, Covid related mostly. There is speculation on the farmer level that this may be intentional to drive up prices but that is not the focus of this post. but prices have certainly gone way up in a year. An example would be boneless beef striploin 0x1. Last year at this time they were $6.09 per lb. and this year $7.52, wholesale price. Before our summer break at the CIA we cut a few of these. The price was high but I found another issue. The regular Choice cuts we bought seemed to be below grade, more like Select. This is a small sample, but before the pandemic we were finding a lot of mid to high choice strips mixed in the box, some bordering on prime. Some articles are stating cattle are smaller and being pushed to market faster. Feed prices are up too, due to environmental issues. This might be pushing more cattle into lower choice level. Of course there have been some instances of cheating, such as the A.Stein case in Brooklyn where the purveyors were specifically changing the labels from Choice to Prime last year but that is certainly not common. It seems like more beef are hitting the low scores, legally.
In this photo we see the basic range of Choice and the one on the right is what I’ve been seeing lately. Higher price, lesser quality. You can still buy mid to high Choice through one of the more expensive certified programs and be guaranteed the quality but those prices have gone even higher. A lot of that product is also being sold on the internet sales market which has grown over the pandemic. The high end internet sales bloomed as people stayed home but wanted the steakhouse quality steak and a lot of companies pivoted to those sales last year.
I see some similar things with the pork industry. High prices on certain items and some fairly low quality. most pork is not USDA graded so there is mainly the processors quality standard that dictates how good it is. I’m not saying quality standards have slipped but as plants become strapped for workers and places are trying to do more with less, quality seems to back slide some. I found some pretty poorly cut primals and some mushy “RSE” pork. Also, some of the pork was huge, probably a result of plants slowing down and hogs getting oversized.
The meat industry, as a whole, struggled through different parts of this pandemic, but some companies have certainly not been hurt financially. The higher prices and slower production have created a formula for some pretty hefty profits but as quality declines and prices stay high, people will adjust eventually and that could change everything….maybe for the better.