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Higher prices on beef, pork have families seeking alternatives

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A Franklin man grabs the one-pound package of ground beef, puts it in his cart and shakes his head.

Steve Sample would normally buy twice that amount, but beef prices have gone up so much he’ll make do with just one package. Looks like pasta will be on the menu again this week, he said.

The packages of bacon are just down the aisle, but he’s not even going to look. He already knows it’s going to be too expensive to try to squeeze into his $200 per month food budget.

“It’s hard to buy bacon when it’s $7 per pound. I’ve got to look at what I’m buying, check the prices on everything,” Sample said.

Beef and pork prices have spiked this year to record-high levels as livestock farmers are dealing with a smaller supply of animals. A virus that kills piglets has been making it hard for pork farmers to raise new animals, while droughts in the southern plains states and higher demand from China are driving up beef prices, Purdue University agriculture economist Chris Hurt said.

Bacon averaged $5.55 per pound in March across the nation, up 13 percent from a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prices have risen more than 10 percent since last year for pork chops, ham and ground beef, too. A family that needs 5 pounds of ground beef to grill burgers or make tacos is paying about $2 more every time they buy.

Now, many people are watching prices, buying less, or eating more chicken or turkey as a substitute.

When ground beef hit $5 per pound, Becky Horton of Greenwood started buying ground turkey instead because she could get it for $3.50 per pound. Now she’s using the turkey to make tacos or meatloaf, and while the taste isn’t the same, the savings are worth it, she said.

“It needs more seasoning and more flavor. But I recently made tacos and burritos, and I just used that package of the Mexican seasoning and, other than the texture, I couldn’t tell the difference,” she said.

Horton hasn’t completely cut ground beef out of her meals. But now instead of buying a 1-pound package, she’ll buy a 10-pound roll that’s cheaper per-pound, break it up into smaller portions and freeze them.

The freezer in Rick and Alicia Goodwin’s home in Trafalgar has become jam-packed recently, because whenever they find a sale on meat they’ll buy as much as they can. They budget $250 per month for food, and their income has gone down after Rick Goodwin retired and his wife was laid off when Best Buy shut down its distribution center in Franklin.

Variety has been sacrificed for savings, they said.

“If we find a meat sale on chicken, we will eat chicken for a week or two. We buy as much as will fit in our freezer, and that’s what we’ll eat,” Rick Goodwin said.

Lisa Roberts of Franklin glanced at price tags on pork shoulders, then pushed her cart away. That kind of big cut of meat is what she’s been targeting recently, because she’s able to get several different meals out of it. She’s spending less on meat and her family has been eating salads or bean soup instead because prices are too high, she said.

Shoppers are more frequently substituting chicken for pork or trading for less expensive options, such as grilling burgers instead of steaks, Hurt said. Prices will likely continue to go up this summer when demand increases during grilling season and could max out around August or September, he said.

Hog raisers lost about 7 percent of newborn pigs during the winter when a virus was hitting hardest. Those pigs usually grow about six months before being slaughtered for food, which means pork supplies will be thin this summer, Hurt said. Cattle ranchers have also struggled because of ongoing droughts in Texas and Oklahoma, which is reducing the size of herds. Demand for beef has also risen sharply in China, which is reducing the amount of ground beef and steaks available, Hurt said.

Prices are rising to try to level out the demand, but higher prices don’t stop as many people from buying compared to other products. For example, a person may go to a different gas station around the block that is 2 cents cheaper per gallon, but they’re not going to stop buying bacon if the price rises 10 cents, because there isn’t a widely available substitute that has the same use or flavor, Hurt said.

Absorbing increases in price for must-have items takes money away from other bills and is especially difficult for people on fixed income. John Moore, of Franklin, is retired and budgets about $225 per month for food for him and his wife. Moore was splurging on two steaks, which cost about $10 each. He was planning to cut them in half to try to get two meals out of each.

He’s also tried to make hearty meals that don’t need a lot of meat, such as chili or stews in order to stretch what he does buy, he said.

Moore is shopping around and watching the prices and looking out for sales on other items, too. He passed a gallon of milk at one supermarket that was nearly $5 and instead nabbed two half-gallons at another for $1 each.

“That $225 per month, when prices go up, it goes to $235 or $250 and then what else can’t you afford?” Moore said.

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