US consumer demand seen slow for pricey beef, pork

by Carey Gillam

  • Experts see U.S. consumer demand still slow
  • 2010 consumption seen at 205 pounds per capita

NEW YORK, May 19 (Reuters) - Higher prices for beef, pork and poultry could keep Americans from firing up their grills as often as usual this summer, keeping consumer demand for meat slow at a time of year when it usually peaks, industry experts said on Wednesday.

With prices climbing for pork chops, strip steaks and plump chicken breasts, consumers are likely to save their pennies and consume less meat, at least the pricier cuts, according to U.S. meat industry experts.

“The recession certainly changed some demand factors,” said Sue Trudell, vice president of analytics firm Express Markets Inc.

Food prices rose 0.2 percent in April, but that was led by a 1.4 percent increase in meat prices, the largest gain in six years. Industry experts have predicted prices at the retail level are set to surge amid .

Surging livestock feed costs, tied in part to competitive demand for corn for ethanol use, herd reductions and rising demand from China have contributed to higher prices that include a 25 percent jump in wholesale pork prices over the last year and beef price hikes o 22 percent, USDA data shows.

Retail prices in many cases are just now catching up, leaving leading U.S. meat company executives speculating over how the summer season will shape up.

“It’s too early to tell right now,” Hormel (HRL.N) Chairman and Chief Executive Jeffrey Ettinger said on the sidelines of an industry conference in New York. “In many cases we just put through some of those price increases. My guess is you will see some volume declines.”

Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N) CEO Donnie Smith said he saw the worst of the downturn behind the industry as the meat business returns to profitability. But he said he is anticipating only a slow recovery in restaurant dining this year as consumers remain skittish.

“We feel like the worst is behind us, but I’m not looking for a rapid climb out,” Smith said during a presentation at the BMO Capital Markets Agriculture, Protein, and Fertilizer conference.

Tyson is the largest U.S. meat producer and about a third of its beef, pork, and chicken goes to food service, with the balance going to such areas as grocery stores and exports.

EMI’s Trudell said peak per capital consumption was reached in 2006 at 220 pounds of meat consumed per person. This year that will likely average 205 pounds per capita and should remain flat into 2011, she said.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Bob Burgdorfer in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)