Skyrocketing meat prices hurting Hampton Roads butchers and consumers

Posted at 11:12 PM, Jan 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-12 18:12:48-05

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – The continued increase in meat prices is causing growing frustration from the shopper to the small business owner like the local butcher.

Nick Washington has been in the meat business for more than three decades. He now owns the processing plant Miller Meats and the butcher shop Uncle Nick’s Premium Meats in Newport News.

But the all-time high price of meat is hurting his bottom line.

Washington said prices for beef, chicken and pork have spiked by more than twofold.

“Ribeye’s you could get two years ago for $5 a pound; they’re $10 a pound now,” he said.

Washington said his business has taken a big hit – about 45%.

As a result, he’s had to raise prices on his customers by as much as 30% to 40% or could face going out of business.

“That’s just because if didn’t, I’d go in the hole,” Washington said.

The widespread price hike is also putting a strain on customers like college student Lehua Lum, who’s on a tight budget and says it’s getting harder to put food on the table.

“I usually make pork a lot, so watching the pork prices get up, it’s just kind of harder to keep making dinners,” the Hampton resident said.

The most popular item at Uncle Nick’s are oxtails. Before the pandemic, Washington said a four-pound box cost $20 but now they cost $34.

“It’s incredible how it spiked but what can you do about it?” he said.

The skyrocketing prices for beef and poultry are a result of COVID and the global supply chain issue. A shortage of workers in the plants and truckers to drive the goods is also helping to drive up costs.

But the Biden Administration puts the blame on the four large meat-packing companies and is working to lower prices with a $1 billion plan.

The money is part of the American Rescue Plan. In a fact sheet, the White House said it would expand independent meat and poultry processing capacity; train the meat and poultry workforce; issue new labeling rules so consumers can better understand where their meat comes from; and increase transparency in cattle markets so ranchers can get a fair price for their work.

The Virginia Cattlemen’s Association represents farmers around the state. Executive Director Brandon Reeves said the big meat-packing companies control 84% of the beef market and can increase their own profits at the expense of both farmers – who are underpaid – and consumers – who pay more.

“You have record-high beef prices and at the same time, you have packers reporting record profits,” Reeves said. “It’s at the expense of the consumer on the one hand, because you’re paying for it, and on the other hand, it’s at the expense of the farmer because those profits, that increased price is not being passed along to the farmer who is also dealing with rising input costs.”

The plan would also set money aside to provide loans to help independent meat producers, including Uncle Nick’s.

Washington is hopeful but doesn’t think the plan goes far enough.

“I think that’s just a band aid,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to fix anything long term.”

News 3 reached out to federal legislators in Hampton Roads about how the president's plan could help lower costs.

Congresswoman Elaine Luria said in a statement, “Protecting small businesses in Hampton Roads is among my top priorities, and my office remains available to assist those struggling during this period of economic recovery. The programs the President announced yesterday are a good first step to addressing the rising costs of meat. I am continuing to work across the aisle to find solutions to support the economy and people of Coastal Virginia.”

In a statement, Congressman Rob Wittman (VA-01) said:

“The high prices consumers are experiencing are a direct result of the inflation caused by President Biden and Democrats’ massive spending agenda. I, along with many of my colleagues, have consistently warned against this excessive spending and the harm it would cause to consumers and small businesses. My team and I have always been, and consistently remain on standby to help small businesses in Virginia’s First District who may need assistance or resources to help with the negative impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation. It is clear that American businesses and families are suffering because of the extreme spending policies led by Democrats and this Administration. Instead, we must push pro-worker, pro-growth, and most of all, pro-American policies.”

A spokesman for Congressman Bobby Scott said he was not available.

Related: Hampton Roads food banks, residents feeling impacts of inflation