Postcard from Chicago

Postcard from Chicago

Sales
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Chicago was once the centre of America's meat packing industry.

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LOCATED on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million, is the third most populous city in the United States.

Thanks to television and film, many people of my generation associate Chicago with little else than the notorious gangsters of the 1920s prohibition era.

But the Chicago of today is a vibrant international hub for finance, culture, commerce, industry, education, technology, telecommunications and transportation.

The city is home to major companies such as Boeing, Kraft Heinz, McDonald's and United Airlines and principal international airport, O'Hare, is often ranked as the world's busiest.

Chicago was also once the centre of America's meat packing industry.

Armour and Company was founded in Chicago in 1867 and by 1880 had become the city's most important business.

In the 1980s, in consequence of takeovers and selloff, the Armour Food Company (minus the Armour Star canned meat business) transferred to ConAgra Foods who later sold their Chicago-area-based refrigerated meat business (including the Armour brand) to Smithfield Foods.

The Armour Star business, meanwhile, passed through several hands including Pinnacle Foods, which strangely enough was in turn acquired in 2018 by the now Chicago-based company ConAgra Brands.

Another Chicago connection with the US cattle and beef sector is the all-important live cattle (slaughter type) and feeder cattle futures contracts.

It was the Chicago Board of Trade which pioneered futures trading when it listed the first ever standardised exchange-traded forward contract in 1864.

Today, CBOT remains the world's largest and most diverse derivatives market.

On the retail food side of things, my correspondent visited a good-sized (two floors) inner-city supermarket a couple of weeks ago which appeared to cater for high-rise city dwellers (located throughout the centre of the city) and suburbanites who would typically shop during lunch hour or after work from 5 to 8pm.

While quality and range of fresh food products was very good, the store was not what you might call high-end and would rank somewhere just below a typical Waitrose supermarket in the UK. Accordingly prices were considered as generally supermarket competitive.

The first noticeable thing about the meat section in the Chicago supermarket was the extensive, butcher-shop style approach.

The first noticeable thing about the meat section in the Chicago supermarket was the extensive, butcher-shop style approach.

The first noticeable thing about the meat section was the extensive, butcher-shop style approach.

If there were any pre-packaged meat cuts on offer in refrigerated cabinets, it was not readily evident.

This is in sharp contrast to the recent tendency in Australian supermarkets to move to a case-ready centralised processing model.

The next surprise was display of similar cuts side-by-side of different provenance and quality grade giving customers something to consider in terms of the value proposition before them.

As the photo depicts, New York Strip (Porterhouse) and Ribeye (Scotch Fillet/Rib Fillet) attract the same price but the yellow 'sale' ticket suggests grass-fed usually sells for a higher price than either organic or conventional USDA Prime grade.

While the US is not noted for grass-fed production, the product in this instance was US-sourced.

The ticket price of US$19.99/lb converts to about AU$65/kg.

Other product in the display featured plenty of USDA Choice grade at lower price points.

Putting aside the shortcomings of the USDA grading system, it does at least appear that supermarket retailers in the US are willing to convey the independent grading classifications through to consumers thereby providing some guidance in terms of what to expect in eating quality versus price.

While all of that looked very positive from the viewpoint of promoting beef to the consumer, the real kicker was the huge amount of very visible plant-based meat alternatives.

The photo suggests the ground beef, sausage and burger patty segment of the market is coming under intense pressure from the lookalikes.

One pound (0.45kg) packs of ground were priced at US$4.99, equivalent to around AU$16/kg.

The supermarket carried a huge amount of very visible plant-based meat alternatives. One pound (0.45kg) packs of ground were priced at US$4.99, equivalent to around AU$16/kg.

The supermarket carried a huge amount of very visible plant-based meat alternatives. One pound (0.45kg) packs of ground were priced at US$4.99, equivalent to around AU$16/kg.

Market marks time

QUEENSLAND saw little rain in the past week with Gympie and the Burnett region picking up the best of it while in NSW isolated regions on the north coast recorded 15-20mm and in the south a small pocket around Tumut to the east of Wagga did a little better.

In contrast southern and central parts of Victoria picked up useful falls of up to 50mm consolidating an already good outlook for much of the state.

With no change in the weather across most of eastern Australia, the supply pattern remains unaltered with good numbers continuing in northern Queensland, a much tighter situation in southern Queensland and cows still coming forward in large numbers in NSW.

In Victoria, the seasonal spring run is still probably a few weeks away from getting into full stride.

In consequence, grid prices remain unchanged this week with indicator 4-tooth ox showing 580c/kg in southern Qld and 545c in southern NSW and SA while heavy cows were similarly unaltered at 480c and 460c respectively at the same locations.

Last Wednesday's Dalby sale reflected the tightening southern Qld supply with heavy cows in solid demand holding their ground at a 256c/kg LW average, well ahead of hooks rates.

Out of the 4500-head yarding there were only four decks of heavy steers and bullocks reported.

Dubbo on Thursday lined up 4000 head but this also included only a few decks of mixed weight bullocks.

Cows, on the other hand, were more plentiful, particularly at the heavier end.

Quoted 4-7c dearer at an overall average of 243c, these were more in line with hooks rates and reflective of the emerging differential north to south.

Monday's Wagga sale of 5500 head contained more than 1400 cows of which more than 1100 were heavyweights.

The numbers attracted some extra buying interest from the north and this probably helped contain the easing price trend to just 6c for an average of 237c ,which equates to mid-460s dressed weight.

Interestingly the little patch of rain around Tumut last week showed how quickly things will change when a general break comes.

Tumut restockers were into the light steers at Wagga on Monday jumping rates by 20c.

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