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Where's the cheap beef?

Consumers face mixed news on meat prices

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 15/03) - While the price of beef cattle has plummeted in the wake of the mad cow scare, consumers shouldn't expect cheap steaks to fill the meat counters, say industry officials.

NNSL Photo

Tim Wainwright, butcher at Northern Fancy Meats, puts beef roasts out for display. - Merle Robillard/NNSL photo

"The drop in price for producers won't necessarily translate into savings for the consumer," said Cindy McCreath, a spokesperson for the Canadian Cattlemen's Association.

The vast majority of Canadian mid-cut steaks like T-bones and strip sirloins are consumed locally, so demand and price weren't affected by the U.S. ban on Canadian beef.

But a backlog of ground beef and pot roasts, which were originally destined for the U.S., has driven down the price for those cuts in some places, McCreath said.

"When you look at prices, it really depends what part of the animal you want," said McCreath.

It also depends on which stores you visit.

Extra Foods in Yellowknife is one retailer to drop prices on ground beef.

"Our costs are significantly less ... and we have passed on those savings penny for penny to customers," said Lori Stene, public affairs director.

Some wholesalers in Yellowknife have also noticed a dip in the price of meat.

"The price for our ground beef has come way down," said Mike Doyle, manager of Northbest Distributors, a company that supplies meat to restaurants and bush camp sites.

Doyle estimates his price for ground beef has dropped about 30 per cent since the beginning of the summer.

But several other NWT meat retailers say their ground beef costs haven't come down.

"There's been no significant change in the price from the packers," said Ben Walker, general manager of the Yellowknife Co-op.

"There's a glut of animals in the field, so their costs are still high. As a result, our prices haven't dropped."

Terry Greene, manager of Northern Fancy Meats, also said his ground beef supply costs have remained relatively constant.

"There was a slight decrease at the beginning of the summer, but that's more of a seasonal (fluctuation) than anything," he said.

Ruth Boden, head of the Territorial Farmer's Association, wondered why costs of ground beef varied so significantly from one company to the next.

"I was very surprised that the price of meat didn't come down this summer (in some places)," said Boden, who has been farming in the NWT for more than a decade.

"Some people are questioning why."

Evellyn Coleman, executive director of the TFA, says historically packers and retailers have taken advantage of lower supply costs to increase profits.

"It's happened from time immemorial," she said.

But many experts are quick to point out that while packing houses are paying up to 60 per cent less for cattle, their overhead costs skyrocketed after the U.S. closed its border to Canadian beef.

"Packers have all kinds of meat that they can't sell ... which means they can't afford to charge less for the cuts that are selling," said McCreath.

Greene says he expects the price of ground beef to drop after the Labour Day weekend, when the barbecue season traditionally winds down.

"Our policy is that we always pass our savings on to the consumer ... and you'll see prices come down later in the month," he said.