Iowans brace for bump in beef prices - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Iowans brace for bump in beef prices

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

The ongoing drought and high prices of grain have been driving up the cost of beef, and experts say the nation will likely see another 5 to 10 percent increase by summer.

It's a forecast that is forcing local business owners to face some tough decisions. Do they raise menu prices and risk losing customers? Or do they absorb the rising costs themselves and risk impacting employees, quality or portion sizes?

"Mom and Pop" couple Angelina and Mario Bertolini own Mario's Italian Restaurant and Lounge in Dubuque. The couple fell in love in their native Italy and moved to the US, where they eventually wound up in Dubuque and opened the restaurant more than 30 years ago.

"Me, I use a lot of hamburger," Angelina Bertolini said at the restaurant Monday afternoon. She works in the kitchen most of the day cooking up Italian dishes from scratch.

In their decades of restaurant ownership, the Bertolinis have seen the cost of meat regularly rise.

"The price of meat went up. Everything went up," Mario Bertolini said.

The couple has had to raise prices every few years, which includes the cost of re-printing menus. They, like other restaurant owners facing the same price problems, hope customers understand the situation.

"Some, they understand. Some, they don't like," Mario Bertolini said. "I can't do anything about that."

With the high prices of grain, the ongoing drought, the nation's lowest number of cattle in decades, the cost of fuel to transport the meat and more, restaurants face questions of quality and quantity.

"After awhile you have to close the door," Mario Bertolini said, speaking hypothetically about restaurants that don't adapt to the rising cost of meat. "What are you going to do? You have to pay the bill. And the people who work for you, they want to get paid every week, too."

The Bertolinis say compromising on quality is not an option.

"Some thing are very important. To have a good piece of beef, always," Mario Bertolini said. "You have to raise the price, you raise the price, but not cut the quality down."

Another reason behind the rising beef prices is the slow turnaround. Dal Grooms, communications director for the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, said it takes just over two years -- 26 months -- from the time a cow is conceived to the time its meat is on the grocery store shelves or a person's plate.

The USDA reported at the start of 2013 the lowest number of beef cows in the US since 1962. The beef cow herd as of Jan. 1, 2013 was 29.3 million. The total number of cattle in the US -- beef, dairy and other -- set an even lower record. On the same date, that number was 89.3 million. That's the lowest its been since 1952.

Sequestration on the federal level could play a role in rising beef prices, too. Food safety programs face a $51 million cut. That would lead to fewer food inspectors, possible meat plant closures and, ultimately, higher prices down the road.

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