Suppose you’re old enough to remember grilling a cheeseburger from your backyard was like 20 years ago. In that case, you might recall something like this: the brand new Beastie Boys album Hello Nasty was playing on your portable CD boombox, and you were relaxing with a couple of Stone beers from a small California brewery. Despite making the World Cup, the US lost all of its matches, but that’s OK because Mark McGwire kept us entertained by hitting 70 home runs, which was completely unrelated to the investigation. Even when adjusted for inflation, creating a cheeseburger was much less expensive.
The USDA released research comparing the cost of grilling a cheeseburger today to 1998—and while we expect prices to rise dramatically over the next two decades, you wouldn’t expect them to be more than 20% higher after inflation.
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According to the USDA, the ingredients for a cheeseburger in 1998 cost $0.92 on average, consisting of two slices of bread, a two-ounce slice of tomato, a one-ounce piece of lettuce, and a one-ounce piece slice of cheddar cheese, and a four-ounce patty of ground beef. In today’s money, that’s $1.40. Meanwhile, the identical materials now cost $1.69, a difference of almost 20%.
What’s going on? Bread, tomato, lettuce, and cheddar cheese, believe it or not, have all decreased in price after accounting for inflation. Efficiencies throughout the food supply chain helped lower prices for the other cheeseburger ingredients. The inflation-adjusted retail bread prices declined by 2.8 percent between 1998 and 2018, tomato prices fell by 12.3 percent, lettuce prices fell by 27.9%, and cheddar cheese prices fell by 5.7 percent. So, by elimination, it’s beef price alone that drives the price of grilling a cheeseburger.
The cattle supply interruption from the early 2000s and early 2010 still affects the ground beef price in grocery stores today. Even with the expansion of the beef supply in the US ever since the retail price has been slower to decrease.
At the very least, the good news is that you can now listen to The Beastie Boys for free on Spotify. You’ll save some money as a result of this. Maybe one day, grilling a cheeseburger won’t be that pricey anymore, and we will get to enjoy more of it without burning a hole in our pocket.