July 29, 2008

Soaring Costs Force Consumers to Trim Fat From Their Budgets

By Laura Gunderson, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Jul. 29--Summer's when most shoppers cruise the meat counter looking for ribs, ground beef and chicken to grill.

But this year, roasts are enjoying their time in the sun.

A few local butchers and grocery chains say pork and beef roast sales are up over last year as consumers search out cheaper cuts that can provide enough meat for several meals.

The emerging trend is one of the more interesting twists, retailers say, in a more general movement as consumers nationwide, struggling to stay afloat in the face of rising food prices, trade down from more expensive to affordable meats.

Even retailers that haven't seen a pronounced bump in roast sales say they expect that will change with the season as shoppers move back into the kitchen from the barbecue.

"Prices are all going up so fast, it's hard for us to even write an ad anymore," said Russ Feigner, owner of White's Country Meats in Gresham. He's trimmed back his usual 1 1/2-inch steaks to an inch in hopes of saving his customers some money.

"Instead of $10, it's more around $8," he said. "They'll still have a steak; it just might not be as thick as they'd have had a year ago."

Nationwide, the increasing cost of corn feeds for cows, pigs and chickens, along with fuel costs, are showing up in retail prices. The average per-pound price was up 4.2 percent for beef in 2007 from 2006, along with 2.1 percent for pork and 5.7 percent for chicken, according to the most recent data from U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In March, market researcher NPD Group found that 21 percent of the 827 adults aged 18 to 54 it surveyed said they were serving cheaper cuts of meat to save money. Within a subset of those who reported they were more financially challenged this year than a year ago -- a majority of which who had children at home -- 35 percent said they were economizing on meats.

At numerous cooking sites online, readers are exchanging recession recipes and tips on ways to save at the grocery store.

Topping the list are pot roasts that morph into several other meals throughout the week, along with cooking down whole chickens for meat and broth. Other bloggers suggest instituting "Meatless Mondays" and buying meat in bulk to freeze.

That's how Linda Streight of Oregon City has saved for years. Streight said she typically buys roasts, hamburger and steaks in family packs to break up into smaller packages and freeze.

On Monday, Streight stocked up during a pot roast sale at her local Haggen store.

A mother of five, she said she learned early on how to stretch her dollars at the meat counter. It's her kids, she said, who are making adjustments -- like buying more roasts. "My kids, who have their own kids, are having to make some heavy-duty changes," she said.

In recent weeks, Haggen stores have logged a more than 50 percent increase in roast sales over the same period a year ago.

"It's a strange category to see up, especially in summer," said Becky Skaggs, spokeswoman for the chain, based in Bellingham, Wash., that operates 16 stores, including four in the Portland area. "But it has been very consistent like that."

Beef and pork industry groups say such shifts are typical in downturns.

A pork loin roast is 20 percent to 30 percent cheaper than a chop, said John Green, director of strategic marketing for the National Pork Board. Though the total price might be higher than two chops, he said, "you can maybe get three meals out of that roast."

Randy Irion, direct of retail marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said though roast sales nationwide have eased in recent months, a 1.1 percent sales increase from 2007 over 2006 may have signaled the start of a trend.

Sales of roasts and ground meat, along with chuck and round cuts, usually pick up in the fall and probably will be higher in coming months, Irion said. However, he said, shoppers are likely to see more affordable premium cuts as demand for them slackens.

"At the end of the day, the retailer and the packer have to sell the entire animal," he said.

Albertsons also has noticed customers have steered away from seafood -- especially pricey crab legs -- and opted for less expensive cuts, Donna Eggers, a spokeswoman, said. In the Portland area, the grocer's sales of pork shoulders, often used to make pulled pork, have risen 29 percent over last year, she said, and chicken legs are up 15 percent.

Pork shoulders and roasts also are moving off shelves faster than in past years at Gartner's Country Meats, said Rick Martell, manager and meat cutter for the independent butcher shop.

"We can barely keep them in the case," said Martell, who suspects some customers are smoking meats for sandwiches, while others are stocking up freezers.

"Pork butt goes the best," Martell said. "It's less expensive, too, and you can eat on that for quite a few days."


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