How the trucker shortage is fueling the meat crisis

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Meat lovers are paying through the nose for their favorite cuts — and a raging trucker shortage is increasingly to blame, The Post has learned.

The cost of a summer BBQ starring boneless ribeye steak, for example, cost an average of $12.37 a pound last week, up from $9.75 the prior week, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

St. Louis style spareribs, meanwhile, cost $3.82 a pound last week, up from $2.77 the week prior, the USDA data said.

While the skyrocketing price of corn feed – used to fatten animals – has been widely reported to be fueling the price hikes, sources say the dearth of truckers is a big factor as well.

“The driver shortage is pushing the entire pricing system up,” said Daniel Romanoff, president of Nebraskaland, a meat distributor in the Bronx.

In a desperate attempt to hire drivers, Nebraskaland has taken to recruiting them at local fueling stations — distributing flyers that shout, “ATTENTION PLEASE!,” next to a picture of a hand holding a bullhorn.

The flyers offer $4,000 bonuses to new hires after 90 days on the job, and $4,000 to existing Nebraskaland drivers who refer workers to the company. Nebraskaland is offering a similar $2,000 incentive to recruit warehouse workers along with a $2,000 referral bonus for its employees who recruit workers to the company.

Meat wholesaler Baldor Specialty Food, also based in the Bronx, has taken a slightly different tact. Last month it plastered an ad on the Bruckner Expressway — a major thoroughfare for truckers — boasting $3,000 signing bonuses for new drivers.

The driver shortage has many meat wholesales suffering on both ends — enduring long delays in getting their orders fulfilled and then struggling to get their products to supermarkets and restaurants.

WestSide Foods, for example, is now waiting five days – up from three — for its wholesale orders to get to its Bronx warehouse, according to Shawn Reid, vice president of sales.

This and other supply chain factors are all contributing to what Reid called “the longest sustained spike in meat prices in my 35 years in this business.”

While fears of the coronavirus continue to keep some people home, employers say generous unemployment benefits, including $300 weekly checks from the federal government, are also to blame.

“The $300 weekly unemployment checks is a terrific program for those who really need it but it is a deterrent for people to come back to the workforce,” Romanoff said.

“We have heard indirectly from our current employees that their friends and acquaintances who have trucking licenses and have opted not to work right now,” he said.   

The pain of rising meat prices will arguably be felt most acutely by lower income people in places that are far from cattle country, like NYC.

Indeed, Sal Bonavita, who owns two Key Food stores in the Bronx, has largely stopped carrying rib meat, including ribeye steaks and ribs, because he now has to charge customers $16 a pound up from $12. 

“It’s no longer economically viable for us to offer rib steak,” Bonavita told The Post.

Bonavita brought in some rib meat for the Memorial Day weekend for customers who asked for it, but expects to take a loss on it because most of his customers — a diverse group of immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Middle East — cannot afford it.

“If they are coming in with a $50 budget, that $50 is buying less today,” he said.

It’s not just ribs. Before the pandemic, Bonavita was able to offer sales on chicken cutlets for $1.99 a pound. But he recently had to raise his lowest sale price by $1.

His chuck meat prices had been $3.99 per pound, but recently went up to $5.29 per pound — and is likely going up to $5.99 per pound, he said.

The pain is especially acute for lower-income customers, he said. “We are seeing a shift from red meat to chicken from our customers who receive federal assistance,” Bonavita said.

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