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Beefed up meat prices could cool off grilling season

Juan AyalChicago grills chorizo sausages peppers Memorial Day for family cookout near Lawrence Avenue beach. | Dan Rozek~Sun-Times

Juan Ayala of Chicago grills chorizo sausages and peppers on Memorial Day for a family cookout near the Lawrence Avenue beach. | Dan Rozek~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 29, 2013 6:26AM

Luis Hernandez and his relatives didn’t skimp on the meat as they fired up the grill for their traditional Memorial Day cookout: They brought chorizo sausages, as well as hamburgers and steaks.

For the Chicago family, rising beef prices are no match for taste and tradition.

“It’s one time a year. We’re still going to have hamburgers. It’s what we always do,” said Hernandez, 17, as brother-in-law Juan Ayala grilled sausages and peppers near the lake at Lawrence Avenue on the city’s North Side.

“We have steaks and hamburgers,” added his sister, Lucero Hernandez.

Record beef prices may be pinching consumers’ wallets, but that didn’t dampen picnickers’ appetites for their traditional cookout fare on Monday — the annual start of grilling season.

“We’re doing burgers like we do every year,” said Esther Aguilera, 23, as her family grilled Monday near the Lawrence Avenue beach.

The higher beef prices seen nationally and in Chicago are the result of years of drought in major cattle-producing states, analysts said in a weekend Wall Street Journal story.

That adverse weather has shrunk the nation’s cattle herd to its smallest level in six decades, the paper reported.

The paper also reported that as a result, the wholesale price of the most common variety of beef in the U.S., jumped to $2.11 a pound last week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That level broke a decade-old record for wholesale prices set in 2003, when a case of mad-cow disease in Canada led to a spike in export demand for U.S. beef, according to the Journal.

Chicago retailers have seen that shortage translate into dramatically higher beef prices.

At Paulina Meat Market, the cost of beef is “higher—there’s no doubt about that,” said Bill Begale, owner of the shop at 3501 N. Lincoln.

But prices have been stepping up gradually for several years, resulting in higher demand for pork, chicken and other types of meat.

Sausages are selling better than ever, Begale said. “In the last six or eight years, [for] what you can get for eight to 10 people in sausage, you can only get two or three good-sized steaks.”

In Lincoln Square, “We definitely saw a big weekend, with our bratwurst and our homemade sausage,” said Derek Luszcz, owner of Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessan, 4750 N. Lincoln.

The cost of beef “shot up in the last week, a dollar and 50 cents a pound,” according to Ralph Pedota, an owner of Bari Foods, 1120 W. Grand.

“That’s a substantial increase,” said Pedota, one that affects the cuts that come from the short loin and go to the grills of summer: T-bones, filet mignon and New York strips.

It may take until grilling season is in full swing, in mid-June, before customers react to rising beef costs, he said.

“Sausage is a suitable substitute,” Pedota said. “But at some point, you’re going to want a steak.”

Other butchers agree, saying that residents of the Hog Butcher for the World prize good cuts of meat.

“We’re a meat and potato town, so they’ll pay the extra to have it,” said Luszcz.

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