Reserves of frozen pork belly—where bacon comes from—are the lowest they’ve been in 50 years. But no one panic yet! No, America isn’t running out of bacon, but you may have to pay a bit more this spring to get your fix.
The hubbub all began when the USDA announced that besides being at their lowest since 1957, frozen pork belly reserves by the end of 2016 were down more than 35 million pounds over the previous year, hovering at just 17.8 million pounds. The Ohio Pork Council saw a chance to get their product in the news and raised the stakes with the launch of a website called baconshortage.com (which is now totally void of of content—just a plain, white screen) that was more marketing than anything else. It helped send the internet into a tizzy and spawned lots of doomsday-style headlines like “2017 Could See a Bacon Shortage” and “Bacon Crisis Fears Loom.”
But what exactly is the frozen pork belly reserve anyway? According to Steve Meyer, Vice President of Pork Analysis for EMI Analytics and consulting economist to the National Pork Producers Council, it’s basically a “shock absorber” to “backfill any demand that might develop” in case production drops.
The reserve isn’t quite as important today as it once was in regard to seasonal variations in production, Meyer says. Back before bacon was the darling of foodies everywhere there was much more of an ebb and flow between when pork was available and when it was being bought the most.
“It used to be a lot bigger deal when bacon used to peak in the summertime when BLT sandwich season was at its peak, but now bacon usage is pretty much year around,” Meyer told Modern Farmer in a phone call.
Of the low reserve numbers, Meyer says consumers need not worry since the U.S. produces about 75 million pounds of pork belly every week and, with a three-percent increase in the number of pigs slaughtered this year over last, the numbers are only getting higher. “You’re not going to walk into a store and find the shelves void of bacon,” he says.
You might, however, have to pay a bit more for it. The Feb. 3, 2017 trend report from the giant food distributor US Foods noted that “some analysts are forecasting belly prices in 2017 to be the highest on record. These conditions will likely foster some price volatility outside the norm.” Meyer added, though, that he doesn’t imagine consumers seeing too large a bump.
Pork producers will benefit from the low reserves for a time, says Meyer, but points out that the industry is “cyclical” and that it just happens to be on the positive side of that cycle, but if and when prices drop, producers feel it in a big way. Another area of concern has to do with exports. Meyer says they were up nearly five percent in 2016 over the previous year and that there is hope for another increase this year, but there’s uncertainty and concern in the industry “due to the whole thing around trade agreements with the Trump administration.”
Whatever the future brings, Meyer says that consumers can rest assured they will still find bacon on their store shelves. “We’ll ration supply very effectively and there will be plenty of bacon there for you to buy. You may have to pay a little bit more for it for awhile, but we’re going to make plenty of bacon.”