The hamburger has been an American staple since the early 20th century, so it’s no surprise that the burger consistently ranks as the most grilled food item in the United States. But inflation and the rising costs of meat are making the dish more expensive to make at home. Its evolution from chopped steak with cheese to a gourmet sandwich with endless meat and topping possibilities is also costing burger-lovers more money.
Eater looked at Consumer Price Index data for common burger ingredients in order to track their price changes over 30 years. The kinds of items tracked are limited to what’s on the Consumer Price Index list, which doesn’t include condiments or seasonings, but does include haute burger toppings like bacon and butter. Eater’s Consumer Plate Index then adjusted the prices to represent single servings and added them up to find the total cost of one burger.
A homemade cheeseburger with a quarter pound of ground beef, wheat bread, and American cheese (and no other toppings) cost roughly 50 cents in 1985. But money in 1985 had more purchasing power than it does today. When inflation is factored in to bring that to today’s value ($1.10), it’s clear that modern Americans are paying roughly 30 percent more for cheeseburgers than they were 30 years ago.
The reason: meat prices that won’t stop climbing. While the costs for most burger ingredients like lettuce, tomato, and cheese have grown at or lower than the rate of inflation, meat prices have over-inflated, sometimes seven times higher than the overall inflation rate for food.
Droughts and global competition for American beef are the biggest contributors. In the mid-1990s, a devastating drought caused cattle producers to lose pastures. This led to many producers selling portions of their livestock, said Dr. Kenneth Matthews, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"A lot of beef sources around the world have gone through similar liquidation periods," Matthews said. This makes beef imports expensive, too. Droughts in the early 2000s also raised corn prices, which raised ethanol and cattle feed prices. Meanwhile, a cheap U.S. dollar increased global demand for American beef, causing American consumers to compete with the rest of the world for the same prime carcasses. And of course the recession in 2008 didn’t help.
Prices could moderate in the near future, but in the beef industry, this generally takes longer than consumers may want. "The biological cycle of a beef animal is extremely long," Matthews said. It can take cattle producers two to three years to withhold heifers from production in order to produce enough calfs to rebuild the livestock.
The good news is that some cuts of meat are increasing at a slower rate, so traditionally expensive cuts may seem more affordable. A pound of ground chuck, a preferred beef for burgers thanks to its fat content, once cost 35 percent more than ground beef. Today, ground chuck costs only three percent more than ground beef, about four cents per serving. That means that even though burgers at today’s cookouts are more expensive than they were in the ‘80s, they should at least taste better. It also means Americans may be over-paying for "fancy" ground chuck burgers sold at high-end restaurants.
Like beef prices, the costs of meat-based burger toppings such as bacon and eggs have also been increasing faster than the inflation rate. When considering purchasing power, bacon burgers with lettuce and tomatoes today cost 63 cents more than a plain cheeseburger — that’s compared to 27 cents more in 1985.
Luckily, non-meat toppings don’t add to burger costs any more than they did 30 years ago. So late-summer grillers who want to dress up their cheeseburgers may want to stick with lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese: Those aren't much more expensive than they were in the '80s.
It’s too bad the over-pricing of the American hamburger comes down to beef, the most important ingredient of the meal. If meat prices continue to rise, will Americans switch to cheaper protein like boneless, skinless chicken breast or chickpea patties? Surely a few more dollars spent on beef every summer won’t stop millions of Americans from making the hamburger the country’s favorite grilled dish.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI data
*prices are unadjusted for purchasing power, and represent the original cost of each item per serving for each year.