Is the Cost of Meat More Expensive Than its Price?

While prices continue to skyrocket on almost all household commodities, the price of meat remains the same. “Meat is a relative bargain today compared to where it was 10-20 years ago” said Patrick Boyle, CEO of the cattle industry, during a 2002 PBS interview. As we can see from the following chart (showing the inflation rate since the 1930’s of buying a new home, a new car, bread, gas, wages and hamburger meat) prices have steadily risen over the last eighty years, and yet hamburger meat seems somehow less effected. In fact from the 1980s to 1990s the inflation rate actually went down as prices went from $.99/lb to $.89/lb.

The numbers shown are percentages indicating the inflation rate since the 1930s as calculated from The People History website. For example, the price of buying a pound of meat in the 1990's had inflated by 642% since the 1930s whereas during the same year, the price of buying a new car had inflated by 2725%. 
Advances in meat producing efficiency have kept the prices down over the years, but at what cost? How do the prices stay down, and are they reflective of the actual economic, environmental, and health related costs involved in raising livestock? 

Gary Kazanjian for The New York Times
"HERE’S THE BEEF" says New York TImes 
reporter, Mark Bittman, "this feed lot in in 
California can accommodate up to 100,000 
head of cattle".
Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler, New York Times
We’ve all heard about the negative health effects that concentrated livestock raising can have on our health—the hormones, and the antibiotics given to animals to prevent widespread diseases from breaking out in such tight living quarters. But there are environmental concerns to be taken into consideration as well. As part of NPR’s weeklong discussions on meat, Morning Edition's Linda Wertheimer interviewed NPR’s food correspondents Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles to find out more about the specific environmental impacts of meat production. “About 20-30 pounds of feed are necessary to make one pound of edible beef”, said Charles, which means that with the current global demand for market on the rise, the majority, 1/3 to be exact, of all plants grown today go towards feeding animals. An additional 53 gallons of water, 74 ft2 of land, and 1,036 Btus fossil fuel energy is also needed to produce that same pound of burger meat. And before McDonald’s can sell it in their Bic Mac for $3.99, additional costs in packaging, shipping, production and labor must me factored in as well. So where does this “real price” get buried along the way? “It has a lot to do with efficiencies” explains Boyle, “squeezing costs out of the process” but New York Time’s writer Mark Bittmen argues that federally backed grain subsidies are the more likely explanation. With global demand for cheap meat on the rise over the last 5-10 years, the meat industry is forced to keep their prices low and make money by selling quantity rather than quality. Backed by huge government subsidies the meat industry has had an easy time masking their real costs but how long can it go on, and will it ever backfire? For more information on this topic and related issues visit the site links provided throughout this blog.