Meat prices taking bite out of our budgets

Prices have been rising in meat departments at supermarkets because of a drop in the supply of cattle, hogs and chickens.

DENVER — The money you are saving on gasoline may go toward buying steaks, ribs and chicken for the barbecue.

Meat prices are expected to rise faster than overall food costs in 2012. Prices rose in the spring and may increase an additional 1 percent to 3 percent this summer, industry experts said.

Gas prices have dropped at least a quarter recently in most parts of the country, which helps consumers. Still, shoppers should look to stock up when they do see sales on burger meat, steaks, chicken wings or pork chops.

Here’s what consumers need to know:

Here’s the beef: Supermarket meat prices have increased because the number of cattle, hogs and chickens dropped last year in the U.S. Blame the weather.

A wet spring delayed corn planting last year. Traders drove up the price of corn futures because supplies were low and demand was robust from livestock producers, ethanol processors and overseas buyers.

Corn futures jumped to an all-time high of $7.87 per bushel last June.

Feedlot owners who use corn to fatten up cattle before slaughter felt the pinch. Hog and chicken producers cut back on the number of animals they raised to offset higher corn costs.

In addition, a drought in parts of the country dried up grasslands and ranges where cattle graze. Some ranchers sold off big numbers of animals instead of paying to truck in hay for feed.

In January, the U.S. Agriculture Department said U.S. cattle herds were the smallest since 1952. Live cattle futures jumped to $1.3115 per pound in February, the highest level in decades. That meant higher costs for feedlot owners and meat packers, and those costs were passed on to consumers.

Higher corn prices also meant increased costs for hog and chicken producers.

Price check: Meat prices are expected to increase 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent in 2012, said Ricky Volpe, a USDA economist, compared to the 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent rise in overall food costs the government is forecasting.

How much of your food budget is going toward meat depends on what type of meat you prefer. Steaks cost about 6 percent more this April than a year ago, USDA data showed.

Pork prices were up just 3 percent, while chicken prices jumped 5.3 percent.