An industry statement by the National Pig Association in Britain predicting a bacon (and other pork cuts) shortage has left U.S. consumers spinning.
The announcement is not an island unto its own. It comes on the heels of a summer plagued by the most devastating drought in more than fifty years and months of warnings about coming hikes in already skyrocketing food prices. This time however, the news stories are garnering more attention and it’s no real wonder.
Bacon has become something of a national symbol, a staple, a completely guiltless indulgence that is as ubiquitous as water, oxygen… and chocolate. Some of us are unsure how we’ll survive without it — even if only facetiously.
How much should you really consider running out to pick up some bacon today? Perhaps not quite as much as the flurry of media coverage would have you believe. Here’s why:
Pork prices will rise. And they may rise significantly. The national (global, even) pork herd will be reduced. The pork boards and newscasters aren’t lying to you, but they’re not being entirely clear about how much time it takes for that to happen either.
To really appreciate how this year’s drought will affect pork prices you have to understand where that pork comes from, how it gets to your plate, and how farmers can reasonably reduce numbers.
The first thing to understand is that hog farmers only really have one way to cull herds: through the meat market. At any given time, drought or not, we’re moving pigs through slaughter houses and auction yards, sending them “to market, to market,” where they will eventually end up on consumers plates. One of the ways farmers protect their investments and avoid bankruptcy is by watching the factors that affect the markets and strategically sending groups of hogs through the system at the best possible time. There is, in reality, only a small amount of leeway this affords. We can send them a little smaller or a little larger, but there’s not a hugely significant variation from one end of that spectrum to the other. Pigs that are too big or too small simply aren’t marketable.
Much like the stock market, analysts watch this hog market to decipher what’s happening on individual farms. Did a lot of slightly smaller hogs go through the market last week? Maybe farmers are trying to get hogs off the feed bill earlier. Did we instead have relatively few, but mostly larger pigs headed off to market? Farmers might be holding hogs back to capitalize on a few extra pounds per animal or an expected rise in price in coming weeks.
Much of what they come away with is speculation, but speculation based on many decades of experience with the trends that follow this side of the pork industry. At this time, what they’re finding is that, together, slaughter weights and hog numbers in the United States have not shown significant deviations from normal trends to warrant mass panic. While farmers are sending smaller pigs to market, the quantity in which they’re showing up is balancing out the overall amount of pork being put on the market and that’s unlikely to change until outside influences incentivize a different strategy at the farm-level.
The other thing to understand is that one reason we’re not seeing significant changes yet is that all of this takes time. Pigs take an average of six months to reach market weight. Six months ago we didn’t know the toll this summer would take on our grain supplies. Six months ago hog farmers were breeding and farrowing (delivering litters of) pigs at a normal clip, which guarantees the pork supply right now. Even as recently as a few months ago there was largely an air of calm within the industry; which guarantees the pork supply for a few more months until the pigs born then are out of the system.
Indeed, pork prices will rise, but bacon is not going to disappear from grocery shelves tomorrow. Stock up, but don’t panic.
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