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Chomping on buffalo wings about to cost consumers more

Buffalo chicken wings are served during an event in front of City Hall announcing the third annual Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo, N.Y. Monday, June 21, 2004. This year's festival coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Buffalo chicken wing. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)

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By The Christian Science Monitor
Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 6:08 p.m.

Feeding guests at your Super Bowl party could get a little expensive this year.

Why? The price of Buffalo wings has spiked 52 percent in the past year, and analysts expect that to continue. “The wings are really causing some issues,” said Bruce Reinstein, vice president of strategic development and sourcing for Consolidating Concepts, based in Boston. The company works with more than 15,000 small to midsize food service chains to help them plan their food supply purchases.

“Wings are the new, popular quick-service food,” Reinstein said, as the fast, casual landscape becomes more sports-bar oriented and demands a larger amount of wings. Plus, fast- food giant McDonald's tested bone-in chicken wings in a few Atlanta locations during the summer. If a national rollout follows, “they have so much buying power they will distort the market.”

Another problem: Poultry farms are producing larger and larger chickens, making the smaller wings and legs used for Buffalo wings few and far between.

The Buffalo wing isn't the only food item projected to jump in price next year, though it is one of the more dramatic upward shifts. Because of a drought that parched the Midwest last summer, prices of nearly every food product tied to corn will increase this year. And overall, household food prices are expected to rise between 3 and 4 percent, according to projections from the 2012-13 Food Price Outlook from the Department of Agriculture.

In addition to the corn, whose harvest was weak as a result of the drought, prices will go up on proteins, such as beef and chicken, because livestock feed is primarily made of corn.

The drought also affected wheat and soy crops, which will translate to higher prices on items such as bread and cooking oil.

Beef in particular will increase, analysts predict, in part as a result of the drought and in part because of a high demand for cheap meat cuts in restaurants — flank steak, and skirt steak, for instance — and ground beef, because of the popularity of hamburgers. Wholesale ground beef cost $1.71 per pound a year ago; now, it's at $1.89 per pound

“Companies are trying to keep costs down, so products that aren't as expensive per pound, they are very much in demand,” Reinstein said.

Prices are already higher than they were last year, but the impact of the summer drought will be felt most acutely in the new year.

“The impact of a drought takes time. There's still inventory of corn, but then the old corn is gone, you have to build it up. It's a cycle,” Reinstein said.

Still, not everything on your grocery list is getting more expensive. Sugar was cheaper in 2012, and dairy products in November were 1.1 percent below the average price a year ago, according to the USDA. But Reinstein is hesitant to make any predictions that prices will go down, at least until it's clear how mild or severe this winter will be. This past year, produce prices were down thanks to an unusually mild winter, but the market is likely to correct itself, especially if chilly weather hits key planting spots such as Florida and California.

“There's no way of really knowing if we're going to have that kind of luck again,” he said. “If we have any issues with weather, that will make information about produce more clear.”

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