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Relax, bacon lovers: No shortages, though prices eventually may rise

Predictions of bacon shortages have sent shivers through a nation in love with pork belly.

What will we eat with our eggs and grits? What else could pair so deliciously with a molten cheeseburger? How will Top Chef contestants cope without their go-to salty flavor booster?

Relax. It appears your local grocery store will have plenty of bacon despite the wail from European pork producers last month forecasting a baconless world. Social and traditional media gobbled up the story like, well, pigs at the trough, and there was momentary panic that we would be forced to live without bacon cupcakes.

"You will never go into a store in this country and not find bacon," said Frankie Hall of the Florida Farm Bureau Federation by phone from Gainesville. "You can bet that producers will fill that void whether the product is coming from Brazil or China."

It is likely, though, that consumers will pay up to 10 percent more for bacon in 2013, according to U.S. economists. So that $5.99 pound of thick-cut maple bacon could jump to more than $6.50. Look for other food price hikes, too, including other meats and cereals.

There's trouble in the American hog industry, for sure, and how that came to pass has everything to do with the weather. A wicked drought last summer in the Midwest drastically affected wheat, corn and soy crops, and that has increased the cost of livestock feed. The U.S. Agriculture Department predicts this year's corn production will be at its lowest level since 2006.

"The largest expense for hog farmers is feed," Hall said.

And the female hogs — sows — that the bacon comes from are older than the animals used for tenderloin, ribs and chops, he explained. Older means they need more feed over their lifetimes, so they cost more to raise.

Bacon comes from 4- to 5-year-old sows who already have gone through five to six gestational cycles, Hall said. At that point, they are used for bacon, sausage and other products. Pork chops, tenderloin and other premium cuts come from both sows and boars who are five to six months old. They are younger, so they need to be fed for a shorter period of time and thus are cheaper to raise.

When the price of feed jumps, many farmers reduce their inventory because they can't afford to maintain the herd.

"So a farmer with 2,000 sows might drop the inventory to 1,000 and that means fewer females coming to market," Hall said.

Culling herds this year could result in a temporary glut and actually drive prices down for a time, Ron Plain, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Missouri, told the Associated Press. After that supply is gone, the overall volume will drop and prices will rise.

European hog farmers are also dealing with another issue that may reduce production there and cause shortages and/or higher prices. Next year, "gestational crates" will be outlawed in the euro zone, meaning all hogs must be allowed to roam freely or confined in larger pens. Crate raising confines one animal to one pen and has been called cruel by animal rights activists. The practice allows farmers to have more animals on their land and protects them from the "pecking order," Hall said. Some European farmers say this will force them to stop production. The EU ban combined with the rise in livestock feed prices set off the bacon shortage story in Europe.

Gestational crates have been banned in Florida since 1992, but the hog industry here died in 1998, Hall said, when the nearest pork processing plant closed in Georgia. The crates are also banned in California and Arizona and are in the process of being phased out in other states. However, the nation's largest pork-producing states, among them Iowa and North Carolina, still use the crates.

Hall said the crates are being phased out in the United States and likely will be replaced everywhere in the next 10 years with pens that hold five to six hogs.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

Relax, bacon lovers: No shortages, though prices eventually may rise 10/01/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 1, 2012 9:40pm]
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