Ribs are a popular order at many steakhouses and barbecue joints, but can also be one of the most expensive.
Though the different types—spare ribs, short ribs, and baby back ribs—usually vary in price, the prices of all three cuts have gone up significantly in recent years.
Why has the price increased?
Why are ribs so much more expensive than other cuts of meat?
We’ll explore the top ten reasons.
Why Are Ribs So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
Regardless of what is being sold, consumer demand is a huge factor in deciding its price.
If no one wants to buy a product, sellers must reduce prices to incentivize people to purchase it.
For ribs, this is not an issue.
Ribs are one of the most in-demand cuts of meat, both at restaurants and in butcher shops.
Ribs can feel like comfort food, which makes them a popular choice for dining out as well as home cooking.
They may bring back memories of childhood barbecues or a relative’s homemade dinners.
They are a staple at Fourth of July parties and other outdoor events, so they are often more in-demand during the summertime.
Across the country, cities have turned different versions of ribs into their “staple” food, such as dry-rubbed pork ribs in Memphis or rib tips in Chicago.
Ribs are also more tender and flavorful than other cuts of meat (though we’ll discuss that more later).
For all these reasons, they are a popular choice across the board.
When demand for a product goes up, prices rise as well.
This is because vendors know they are still likely to sell their goods for a higher cost since so many people want them.
It is a delicate balance, however.
If a vendor raises their prices too much, a competitor could undercut them with lower prices that still turn a profit.
Therefore, you’re unlikely to find a huge variation in meat prices from one shop to another.
They are likely to all stay relatively high until production costs change or demand goes down.
2. High Meat-To-Bone Ratio
Depending on the type of rib and which animal it comes from, ribs often have one of the highest ratios of meat-to-bone.
This makes them a particularly valuable cut.
Rib dishes typically come from one of three animals: cow, pig, or lamb.
These animals are vastly different sizes, and so they have different amounts of muscle and fat.
Beef rib cuts are usually either back (or prime) ribs, flanken ribs, and short ribs.
Common pork rib cuts include spare ribs, baby back ribs, and country-style ribs.
Lamb produces riblets and breast slab ribs.
The different ways these are cut will change the amount of meat on the bones.
Beef ribs produce the largest cuts, given that cows are considerably larger than pigs or sheep.
They are longer than pork or lamb ribs, and they also tend to have more meat on the bone.
For this reason, beef ribs are usually more expensive than ribs of other types of meat.
This is especially true of short ribs, which come from the lower portion of the cow.
They can be up to 12 inches in length, with one to two inches of meat on top.
Beef short ribs are typically more expensive than any other cut.
Back ribs have less meat on top of the bones as most of it is between each rib.
When it comes to pork ribs, country-style has the most meat.
This cut comes from near the shoulder blades of the pig.
They can also be expensive, though they are typically not as well-known as other cuts, so demand is not as high.
The most popular, and often most expensive, type of pork ribs are baby back ribs.
Interestingly, even though the United States is home to millions of cows living on ranches across the country, much of our beef is imported.
This is because, in the US, we produce high-quality, fatty beef.
Fatty trimmings have their place in many dishes, but lean meat is also in high demand.
Because we don’t produce nearly enough American-grown lean beef to meet demand, we get a lot of it from Australia and New Zealand.
In some cases (as with ground beef), we then mix their lean trim beef with fat trim from the United States.
Having to import meat from thousands of miles away costs a lot of money.
For this reason, beef ribs and other cuts made from cow meat are often more expensive than other types.
Why do we import lean beef instead of growing it here?
The truth is, importing lean beef is better for American ranchers and farmers.
Because US beef is such rich, high-quality meat, we are able to export it to countries without the same resources.
Exporting meat earns ranchers a lot of money.
By importing lean beef, ranchers can focus on producing fatty beef that will pay for itself.
They don’t have to devote resources to producing lean beef that other countries don’t necessarily need.
While importing beef helps ranchers, it does require consumers to pay more for their meat at the butcher.
Beef prices are high because of the resources (such as gas, packaging, and refrigerated trucks) required to get the meat from farm to shelf.
4. Rich Flavor
Ribs are known for being one of the most flavorful cuts of meat, regardless of which animal it came from.
Beef ribs tend to have a richer flavor than pork, simply by virtue of being made of beef.
However, when cooked properly, all types of ribs can have an unforgettably delicious taste.
When it comes to meat, most of what we taste is actually smell.
Our senses of taste and smell work together to create the “flavor” of a food.
In general, raw meat doesn’t smell like much, and therefore, it doesn’t taste very good to us.
When meat is cooked, the fat interacts with the proteins in the muscle in a way that creates the aroma we all recognize from backyard barbecues or steakhouses.
We tend to like the smell of meat for evolutionary reasons.
Our ancestors needed fat to stay alive.
Our bodies still associate that smell with high-value food.
Ribs often have a significant amount of marbling or fat mixed into the muscle tissue.
This mix of lipids and proteins creates a mouth-watering aroma that translates into rich flavors.
There are also a variety of ways to cook and prepare ribs that can create different experiences every time you eat the dish.
Ribs can be barbecued, roasted, braised, fried, or some combination of several cooking methods.
They can be marinated, rubbed with spices, slathered in sauce, or glazed.
Because ribs are so versatile and are naturally very flavorful, they are one of the most expensive cuts of meat.
In addition to their flavor, ribs are also one of the juiciest, most tender cuts of meat.
This also has to do with the amount of fat on the bones.
When muscle cooks, it tends to toughen up and become chewy.
Fat melts and helps soften the meat as it heats up.
Because ribs have a lot of marbling, there is plenty of fat to help tenderize the muscle on the ribs.
Collagen, a protein that is the main component of connective tissue, makes meat tougher.
It is typically found more in muscles that are used often or that are weight-bearing.
The muscles around the ribs don’t fall into either of these categories, so they are usually lower in collagen.
Of course, simply having fat present doesn’t automatically create tender meat.
The age of the animal when it was slaughtered plays a part as well.
Younger animals have juicier, more tender meat, while older animals tend to be tougher.
For this reason, pork and lamb ribs are usually more tender than beef ribs, because these animals are often slaughtered at a younger age.
How you cook your ribs will make a huge difference in how juicy they are as well.
The most important thing to keep in mind is temperature.
At 190 degrees Fahrenheit, collagen and fat begin to melt, softening the meat.
If the ribs are not heated to this temperature, they are likely to be tougher.
On the other hand, cooking ribs at too high a temperature will also toughen them.
Around 200 degrees is ideal.
The longer you cook the ribs, the more time the fat has to melt.
For this reason, it is better to keep the temperature low and cook them for several hours than to put them at 400 degrees for an hour or two.
6. Climate Issues
While it’s true that ribs are almost always more costly than most other cuts of meat, prices are unusually high right now.
This is for several reasons.
The first is climate issues.
Over the past several years, the world has been hit with a variety of climate disasters that have severely impacted the agriculture industry.
The Midwest has seen droughts and excessive heat, while the South has been hit by flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms.
Texas saw the coldest temperatures it has experienced in decades, thanks to Winter Storm Uri.
All of this has made agriculture excessively difficult.
When droughts occur, it costs more to water crops and keep livestock alive.
Hurricanes can destroy farms and ranches, obliterate crops, and even kill livestock.
The same is true of winter storms, especially in places that are not accustomed to winter weather.
During Winter Storm Uri, much of Texas was without power for several days or even weeks.
This caused humans and animals to freeze to death.
Regardless of what kind of natural disasters have hit any given farm in the last few years, they have significantly reduced the meat available in the United States.
Because so many animals were killed or didn’t grow as large as they should have, much less meat has been produced in recent years.
This means supply is low, which drives prices up.
While you’re always likely to pay more for ribs than ground beef, they are particularly pricey right now.
7. High Feed Prices
Another challenge farmers and ranchers are facing right now is skyrocketing feed prices.
Many livestock are fed corn, alfalfa, and oats in addition to the grass we often see them feeding on.
Animal feed prices have risen significantly over the past year, which makes raising livestock more expensive.
In order to make a profit, farmers must charge more for their meat.
Alfalfa prices were up an average of 20.5% over the last year.
Alfalfa is a type of hay that cattle ranchers use to feed their cows.
Corn prices have gone up 40% to 50%, and most other types of supplemental feed (the protein that animals eat in addition to grass and hay) also cost more than usual.
These price increases have been due in large part to a decline in production.
Thanks to soaring fertilizer prices and many natural disasters, farmers have not been able to produce as much corn or other feedstuffs as usual.
The feed that has been produced is generally of lower quality than in past years.
The droughts, floods, and freezes that killed livestock have also made it difficult to grow healthy crops.
Since there is so much less feed available, prices have risen sharply.
In order to produce the delicious, tender ribs that we are accustomed to, farmers need lots of high-quality feed for their livestock.
Since that is in such short supply, it costs much more than usual to produce ribs.
Butchers and grocers have to pay more to acquire good meat, and therefore consumers must also cough up some extra dough.
8. Processing Plant Shortage
Once the livestock has been raised and slaughtered, the next step in the journey from farm to table is a processing plant.
Here, meat is cut and packaged to be sold to grocery stores and restaurants.
Unfortunately, meatpacking plants have experienced massive labor shortages since the onset of COVID-19.
These labor shortages are causing major disruptions in the supply chain, reducing the amount of meat available and increasing prices across the board.
When coronavirus first hit in early 2020, meatpacking plants were faced with a series of decisions to make.
These plants were designated an “essential business” by the United States government, so they were allowed to continue operating, even when transmission of the virus was high.
However, meat processing plants are often set up in a way that puts workers at risk of contracting the virus.
Typically, hundreds of people work in a factory at the same time, often in close contact with each other.
To mitigate risk, the plants had to make changes.
Some plants began operating at lower capacities, laying workers off to stay in business.
Others changed the layout of their buildings so that workers no longer stood so closely or faced each other from across a conveyor belt.
Even with these changes, many factory workers caught the virus at least once over the last two years.
The high levels of transmission in the plants meant that, at any given time, as many as 20% of workers might be absent.
This slowed production down immensely.
Even when livestock was ready to be slaughtered and processed, the plants were often unable to take it.
Because of the shortages, supply fell even further.
The slowdowns at plants, along with the cost of protective measures for employees, are a major contributor to the high prices of meat.
Ribs are expensive in part because processing plants are struggling to produce the volume of meat they usually do.
9. Packaging Shortages
Just like everything else, the packaging industry was hit hard by the pandemic.
Usually, when you purchase meat at the butcher or grocery store, it will come wrapped in paper or plastic.
Even these simple materials are hard to find these days.
Those that can be found cost more than they normally do.
Online shopping became bigger than ever when everything first shut down.
All that shipping requires huge amounts of cardboard, paper, and plastic.
However, the factories that make the shipping materials were unable to produce them at normal capacity, thanks to shutdowns and employees contracting the virus.
The packaging industry was faced with massive shortages.
This caused prices to rise 52% in a single year.
Meat needs to be wrapped to be transported from plants to stores and from stores to homes.
Since it now costs more to package meat, it also costs more to purchase it.
Part of the price you pay for ribs will go toward the plastic it comes in.
10. Carbon Dioxide Prices
Meat must be kept cold as it is processed, transported, and stored.
If the temperature of the meat rises above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a few hours, it must be thrown out.
This mistake would be a huge loss in profits for whoever allowed it to happen, so companies are vigilant about food safety.
Meat is often kept cold using liquid or solid carbon dioxide.
The colder carbon dioxide gets, the more solid it will become.
Solid carbon dioxide is also known as dry ice.
Carbon dioxide prices went up significantly in 2021.
A surge in natural gas prices caused CF Industries, a company that produces carbon dioxide products, to shut down plants.
This created a shortage of carbon dioxide, which means prices spiked significantly.
The food and drink industry then had to increase prices on their products.
Companies must pay more to keep your ribs at a safe temperature before you buy them.
They will then pass this cost on to you, the consumer.