Experts doubt pork shortage, but say prices could soar

September 27, 2012 10:12:23 AM

Jeff Clark - [email protected]


A statement from Britain's National Pig Association sent pork lovers reeling Tuesday. In the report, British hog farmers claim the world will be facing a shortage of pork, particularly bacon, in 2013. But some local experts say the shortage statement is somewhat misleading. 


"Will there be a shortage of pork? If you define a shortage as a situation where product cannot be found or where buyers must wait in lines to buy a product, the answer is no," said Dr. Benjy Mikel, executive director for the International Institute at Mississippi State University. "But the quantity of pork available to consumers in the U.S. and the rest of the world will decline in 2013 due to high feed costs and significant financial losses by producers." 


According to Mikel, U.S. pork production is forecast to reach 23.186 billion pounds by the end of the year, only slightly down from the record 23.347 billion set in 2008.  


"But total production is not as important from an economic perspective as is total supply per consumer," Mikel said. "That number is called per capita consumption because we assume that the total supply that is not exported or placed into storage is, in fact, consumed. U.S. per capita pork consumption or, more accurately, pork availability, has fallen from a high of 51.9 pounds in 2003 to only 46.0 pounds this year and is forecast to fall to 44.6 pounds next year. This figure was 50.8 as recently as 2007. The 2012 and 2013 levels will be 10 percent and 12 percent lower, respectively, than the 2007 level." 


While drought conditions are being blamed in part for the pork problems, it can also be attributed to the nation's energy crisis. Ethanol, also known as grain alcohol, is a common fuel additive and is made from the grain of the corn plant, the main food substance for hogs. 


"The hog and pork markets will require supplies to be reduced in order for prices to rise enough to cover these higher costs," said Mikel. "This process has been ongoing since 2006 due to higher grain prices caused first by the rapid growth of corn-based ethanol production and, more recently, by drought-shortened crops worldwide this year. The average cost of production for Iowa farrow-to-finish operations, as estimated by Iowa State University, was $86.70 per hundred pounds of carcass weight. That figure for 2012 is estimated to be $90.16 based on corn and soybean meal futures prices as of Monday, Sept. 24. Futures prices for 2013 indicate that costs will rise to $95.96. Compare those to the average cost of $52.76 in 2006, the year before corn-based ethanol production began to rise rapidly. 2012 costs are 71 percent higher than those of 2006. The 2013 forecast costs are 82 percent higher." 


Hank Vaiden is something of a local barbecue celebrity. The owner of Hank's #1 BBQ Restaurant and Catering, which sits along the BBQ Belt of Highway 45 North, Vaiden is well-known on the competitive barbecue circuit and he has appeared on "BBQ Pitmasters" on the Discovery Channel. For Vaiden, pork is his livelihood, and the award-winning pit master isn't about to throw in the towel prematurely. 


"This is all just speculation at this point," Vaiden said. "It's a bunch of media hype." 


Vaiden, who uses approximately 1,000 pounds of pork butt or shoulder at the restaurant, said the shortfall hasn't yet been associated with the whole hog. 


"The analysts have said this is mostly going to affect the consumption of bacon and sausage," said Vaiden. "If it does affect butts and shoulders, then it could definitely affect my business." 


As American marketers find new and inventive ways to use pork, be it on top of a sundae or piled-high on top of cheeseburger, Vaiden said pork is just food for most Southerners. 


"Pork has become very trendy," Vaiden said. "Here in the South, barbecue is just what we do -- it's a way of life. But elsewhere, people want to make such a big deal about it. This talk of a shortage has been blowing up in the news. The same thing was said about beef a couple of months ago. Why didn't the media make such a big deal about that? I think the trendiness of pork and bacon is helping to drive the market up." 


Eric Ogle, director of culinary arts at Mississippi University for Women, said pork may not be trendy as much as it is good to eat. 


"I think that although we may not feel the shortage in the U.S. as much as overseas right away, we very well may see an increase in price soon," said Ogle. "In regard to bacon being so popular, I think that it has been driven partially by the down-turn in the economy several years ago and by basic human physiology. Pork and pork products are less expensive than beef and started showing up more on menus when the economy dipped and chefs were looking for a center of the plate alternative.  


"In addition, people are hard-wired physiologically to crave salty and sweet. Pork, in particular bacon or pork belly, is cured using one of two things, salt or sugar. Both of which trigger strong reactions on the palate and cause the cravings we have for salty and sweet, i.e. the "bacon shake.'' One of my favorite indulgent snacks are bacon strips dipped in dark chocolate." 


Lower per capita pork availability/consumption in the U.S. resulted in a new record retail price of $3.561 per pound in September 2011. The average retail pork price was $3.526 per pound in August.