Photo by Eric Sproul via Getty Images

Even after inflation. But why?

Mike Pomranz
July 09, 2018

If you happen to be old enough to remember what a backyard barbecue was like 20 years ago, you might remember something like this: The brand new Beastie Boys album Hello Nasty was fired up on your portable CD boombox, and you relaxed with a couple brews from an up-and-coming California brewery called Stone. Despite actually making the World Cup, the United States lost all of its matches anyways, but that’s OK because Mark McGwire was keeping us entertained, eventually jacking 70 homeruns—which totally wasn’t at all suspicious. And making a cheeseburger was significantly cheaper, even when adjusted for inflation.

Last week, the USDA released a report on the cost of home-grilled cheeseburgers today as compared to 1998—and though we expect prices to go up significantly over the course of two decades, you might not expect them to be over 20 percent higher even after adjusting for inflation.

According to its numbers, the USDA said the ingredients for a cheeseburger—two slices of bread, a two-ounce slice of tomato, a one-ounce piece of lettuce, a one-ounce slice of cheddar cheese, and a four-ounce patty of ground beef—in 1998 cost $0.92 in total on average. In 2018 dollars, that’s $1.40. Meanwhile, those same ingredients right now cost $1.69, or over 20 percent more.

What gives? Well, believe it or not, the price of bread, tomato, lettuce, and cheddar cheese have all actually dropped after accounting for inflation. “Efficiencies throughout the food supply chain helped lower prices for the other cheeseburger ingredients,” the USDA writes. “Inflation-adjusted retail bread prices between 1998 and 2018 fell by 2.8 percent, tomato prices by 12.3 percent, lettuce prices by 27.9 percent, and cheddar cheese prices by 5.7 percent.” So by process of elimination, it’s actually beef alone that is driving up burger costs.

“Today’s higher ground beef prices in grocery stores likely reflect cattle supply disruptions in the early 2000s and early 2010s, resulting in higher-than-average increases in retail ground beef prices during those years,” the USDA explains. “Although U.S. beef production has since increased, prices are slower to retreat at the retail level.”

Specifically, Modern Farmer points to issues in Texas, which is, by far, America’s largest beef production state, where droughts have driven up the cost of raising cattle. Additionally, California ranks fourth in beef production and has had many well-publicized droughts of its own.

At least the good news is that nowadays you can just stream The Beastie Boys on Spotify totally for free. That saves you some cash. Maybe by the year 2038, we’ll be able to stream cheeseburgers over the internet for free too.

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