Meat Pricing: Economics or Witchcraft?

Since meat is probably the single largest expense in the monthly food budget (Kosher or not), it is worth investing a few minutes in understanding where our retail cuts of meat come from, how they get from the farm to the table, and what factors and processes along the way influence its market value. Take the 5 minutes you’ll need to read this article. It’s well worth your time.

Animals don’t grow on trees. They are raised over a period of 6 to 24 months in the case of red meat animals sold at their appropriate market weights. That means that labor, energy, and feed need to be invested in them, as well as innoculations (most are required by law), management equipment and time (fences, paddocks, moving water tanks, etc.). Pasture needs to be managed, which often means mowing it down to prevent overgrowth and to keep the grass in its vegetative (green and growing) and most nutritious state. They need to be weighed periodically, which means corralling and handling them one by one, and feeding, managing, and proper breeding are all time- and therefore labor-intensive processes. Most farms hire farmhands to help get these tasks done, and labor costs money.

Species differ greatly in seasonal availability and demand. Most goats and lambs are born in the springtime, which makes the supply seasonal, even if the demand were to remain constant. Younger animals will always cost more per pound than older ones, as the farmers need to pass on the opportunity to raise them to a heavier finished weight and to charge what they could have commanded for them as finished young adults at the otherwise ideal market weight. Animals are often trucked from different regions with more favorable growing conditions at different times of year to places where it is either too hot or too cold to raise them to the same finished weight or to breed them at certain times to meet the demand for younger animals. Grass-fed animals can only be bred once a year, during a window that lasts barely a short few weeks in most cases. They therefore give birth on a seasonal timeline and their growth patterns will follow the growing conditions for grass, further complicated somewhat by the rainfall patterns.

The demand for different meats has a heavy impact on both price and availability. Some demand is driven by ethnic/religious factors (e.g. holidays seasons such as Passover, Ramadan, Easter, etc.), and at other times by cooking trends, such as steak over the summer, crockpot cuts over the winter, roasts on work holidays or during wedding season, etc. Sometimes the regional demand for some meats makes them much more worthwhile for the local farmers to raise as opposed to others, such as beef in the Midwest, pork in the South, or goat in cities with large immigrant populations. Even if beef is popular all over the country, there may be more money in goat, which means your beef would have to come from further away. Farming trends follow the markets and the demand very closely. They’re trying to make a living, too, after all.

Seeking out a particular meat or animals of a particular size that is harder to find at certain times of year will therefore drive up the price. If they’re harder to find, they often need to travel longer distances in order to get to where you need them from places where they are available at the time. Grass-fed animals can only be raised where the grass is abundant and lush, and they require a lot more acreage per head to raise successfully than their grain-fed counterparts. They command a premium both because they grow more slowly (while requiring the same amount of labor every year), and because hauling them is more expensive given the longer distance between those farms and the cities in which the meat is being consumed.

A fascinating case in point is goat. Historically lamb was considered the most regal and luxurious of the red meats, and it was expensive because sheep can’t eat everything they find (indeed some plants are toxic to them, though much like people and donuts, they will consume them and die nonetheless). But since the large influx of immigrants from South and Central America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, the supply of meat goats has never managed to catch up with the exploding demand. As a result, the few farmers who have gotten with the program and made the switch charge whatever they can get for their goats, which are currently commanding a higher price than lamb for no other good reason than shortage. Then again, they are in higher demand by those who are familiar with them and know how to cook them because they are also tastier - a fact that the more adventurous white folks are also slowly wising up to. [Solid investment tip: if you happen to have any land, grow goats.You can thank me later.]

Two other major and often overlooked factors are what happens to the meat after harvest. Aged meat loses moisture and therefore weight to refrigeration “shrinkage” over the entire period of the aging process. Explained: what makes refrigerators cold is the fact that compressed gas is released into network of copper pipe, which cools the copper in the same way that aerosol cans get cold when you release their contents. Fans blow and circulate air over the coils, which causes the warmer water particles in the air to condense onto and adhere to the copper pipes, where they drip down and are piped out, essentially removing warm water from the air in order to cool it. That’s why cheese, meats, breads, and anything else in your refrigerator tends to dry out, wilt, or shrivel the longer they’re left in there. Water is being wicked out of them by the hour, which is the only mechanical way to keep them cold.

The longer you want your meat aged (and in most cases you do - see our blog post on that topic), the more weight it will lose in the process - despite the processor paying for it at its dressed (slaughtered, skinned, and gutted) weight. The loss in sellable yield needs to be passed on to the consumer if this process is to make any sense for the processor, so it certainly requires a markup. Carcasses and cuts will lose weight at different rates depending on the temperature, airflow, and the amount of exposed surface area in the cut in question. Fat cap, bone cover, and silverskin all help slow it down, but not by all that much.

The next major price determining factor is trim. Unless you plan to cook an entire quarter of beef, you probably want it broken down into primals, then subprimals, and then cut and trimmed into usable retail portions. Breaking down and trimming are processes that involve a lot of labor, and they cannot be accomplished by robots or machines. Muscles follow curves and contours, some of the work is heavy and some very delicate, and cutting schemes vary quite a bit. It is a skilled labor that requires care, and even when properly executed it generates yield loss in the form of trim and waste; membranes, nerves, veins, connective tissues, excess fat, excess bone, and in the case of Kosher processing, Heilev (edible but forbidden fats), the Sciatic Nerve, its branches, and the accompanying fats; and a number of veins, arteries, and blood-rich membranes. Labor costs money, and the reduction in sellable product weight needs to be factored into the price as well.

The degree to which you want your meat trimmed is up to you, and it depends on the intended cooking method and expectations. So steaks are expensive for a few reasons: first of all, they are always in high demand, which creates pressure and shortage on a small number of cuts that need to bear a disproportionately large percentage of the revenue that a carcass must generate in order to prove profitable. Secondly, what makes a steak a steak is the fact that it can be cooked quickly and to delicious and tender results, which requires a skilled butcher to trim down its fat cap to an acceptable thickness and to exclude from it any potentially disagreeable connective tissues that would fail to disintegrate by the time the meat itself is done cooking. High demand and more specific trimming and there you have it. Boneless steaks will cost more than their bone-in counterparts for the same reasons: high demand, even more trim, and now and even lighter sellable yield.

The takeaways here are many. First and foremost, no one is giving meat away; it’s an expensive commodity to begin with, made all the more so by the various supply and demand factors that dictate the market standards. Still, generally speaking, no one is technically saving or losing money by buying something they don’t want or can’t use. If the right cut for the job is a boneless strip steak, and you can’t be bothered with the bones or don’t have so much room on your grill or in your pan, you’re still paying pretty much the same amount of money per pound of edible steak whether it’s bone-in or boneless; the price merely reflects the labor and the loss (otherwise there would be a great business to be made out of boning out someone else’s retail steaks, and you’re more than welcome to try).

Bones and fat do deserve a place of honor in any respectable kitchen. They protect meat from overcooking and help keep more of its interior rare, and in the process they leach out sticky and tasty gelatin, which gives the meat juices a thicker and tastier mouthfeel. Fat cap and marbling will prevent your meat from drying out, they will moisten and soften the chewing process, effectively lubricating it, and they add quite a bit of flavor as well - especially when aged. If you’ve ever wondered why your steaks at home don’t come out the same way as they did at a restaurant, the answer probably lies in the fat - they buy steaks of fattier grades (Prime vs. Choice, Choice vs. ungraded), and they leave a more aggressive fat cap on them, you just don’t see it because it’s hot and rendered by the time you get yours served. Incidentally, that’s also why they’re usually chomping at the bit to get the plate OFF your table - so that you fail to notice how much fat has congealed on your plate once it cools, hardens, and because opaque again.

The witchcraft part? Yeah, some places do charge way too much for their meat, for reasons that neither we nor they can explain to the our satisfaction. But hey, if you can charge more for fake filet mignon than we charge for the real thing, more power to you. As long as someone is willing to pay it, go ahead and shake your moneymaker. And while we’re at it, witchcraft isn’t limited to the high-end side of the market, either. Have you ever wondered why hot dogs often cost less per pound than ground beef does - despite their being seasoned and cooked, to boot? Makes you wonder what else is in there...

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