Friday, March 6, 2009

Economics: Meat Prices

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I am old enough to remember when ground beef was usually $0.99 a pound (and, growing up in the United States, it was per pound, not per kilogram). Even when I was in college, I would be upset if a pound of hamburger was more than about $1.29. In that world, less expensive fishes were still pretty expensive (at least five times the price of beef), and pork, turkey and chicken were somewhere in between, though usually closer to beef.

From that world, what I saw in the grocery store this week was utterly unrecognizable. I rarely purchase beef of any kind anymore, but had I wanted to, ground beef was going for $2.99 a pound. Sometimes low grades might be on sale for $2.49--but there's no way even that's consistent with inflation. Figuring 3% inflation for 20 years (which it hasn't been since the last time I paid a dollar a pound), ground beef should be more like $1.89.

Yet, steak, which I once considered to be extravagant at around five dollars a pound, hasn't gone up by a similar amount. This week, Loblaw's has AAA strip loin steak on sale for $5.99 a pound. That's still much more expensive than ground beef, but not so expensive when looks around the rest of the meat section.

For many years, I had substituted ground turkey for ground beef. These days, I practically might as well substitute steak. I could not find ground turkey of any grade for less than $4.99 a pound, and extra lean was $6.99 a pound. That's typical around here, and one of the reasons I now usually go with ground pork. Pork is the cheapest white meat. Ground pork often goes for $3.99 a pound, and pork chops usually sell for about the same price or a bit more.

Contrast that with chicken breasts. It is not uncommon for chicken and turkey breasts to go for as much as $9.99 a pound. This week, several stores have turkey breasts for $7.99 a pound and seem to think they are providing a real deal. Sometimes previously-frozen chicken breasts will go for $5.99 a pound, and when that rare event occurs, I stock up. Whole chicken or drumsticks will sometimes dip as low as $3.49 a pound but are usually $5.99 or more. As if those numbers aren't enough to make one's head spin, meats in my local store are usually marked only in kilograms, and the price per kilogram is approximately double the price per pound. One has to really pay attention to figure out what is actually a good deal.

Which brings things back to fish, which I prefer to eat once a week and was something I thought I might have to give up while unemployed. Well, apparently not in favor of chicken. For the past three weeks, either Atlantic salmon, trout, or catfish has been cheaper in price than chicken breasts at my favorite store. Last week, trout was going for $5.49 a pound. The clerk at the counter commented, "I don't think it's been that cheap, ever." My response was, "Not this decade, anyway" before I realized that she was younger than me, and quite possibly had never seen it this cheap. It proved to be quite tasty and have excellent texture, so I was an extremely happy camper.

Just about every week, there's some kind of fresh seafood that I like for under $9.99 a pound, often significantly less. As long as that continues to hold true, I'm not likely to increase the amount of chicken or turkey in my diet--and as long as it stays the cheapest white meat, pork will be the staple meat in my freezer and refrigerator on the five days a week that I'm not eating seafood.

The whole thing definitely makes me understand the economic appeal of vegetarianism, to say nothing of the health and environment appeals.

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