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Economist says ‘calm down’ about looming bacon shortage

Contradictory production and economic factors at play in market will take some time to play out.

Amid popular reports of a possible bacon shortage, many consumers wonder what the future holds for their favorite cut of pork. However, the future of U.S. bacon supplies isn’t clear enough for consumers to panic about a potential shortage in 2020, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service economist.

Dr. David Anderson, Texas AgriLife Extension economist in College Station, Texas, quoted musician Taylor Swift in saying we “need to calm down” when talking about numerous reports of a bacon shortage in 2020 that could be based more on expectations than current reality.

“I’m just not convinced yet that these reports aren’t sensationalizing the situation a bit at this point,” he said. “There are contradictory production and economic factors at play in the market, and I think it will take some time to play out.”

As U.S. consumers' love for bacon grows, so does the demand, but demand is also growing elsewhere in the world, he noted.

Exports to China have increased significantly since an outbreak of African swine fever led to large-scale culling of China’s swine herd. Growing exports of half-carcasses of U.S. pork to China are fueling concerns that U.S. supplies of pork bellies -- the cuts that provide bacon -- may not keep up with domestic demand.

Anderson said China's demand for U.S. pork is a new factor that will weigh heavily on the market for the foreseeable future, but according to Anderson and a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, U.S. production and cold storage supplies are setting decades-long records.

“The long-term expectation is for big exports to China, but that is relative to the record amounts of pork we are producing today and have in storage,” he said. “Pork prices are extremely cheap here and are competitively priced in China, even with the current tariff.”

Bacon supply on ice

Anderson said cold storage stocks of pork bellies are the highest he has on record going back to 1973. USDA reported that pork bellies in cold storage were up 34% from last year, reaching 40.7 million lb., compared to 30.4 million lb. in 2018.

It's worth noting that cold storage stocks are typically low in September, he said.

China's demand for pork hasn’t let up and has led to prices so high that U.S. pork is competitive despite a 62% tariff. Exports have increased steadily as China culled around half of its swine herd and continues to struggle with controlling African swine fever.

Meanwhile, demand for pork bellies in U.S. markets has continued to grow as bacon has become a staple in many households, Anderson said.

The National Pork Board reported that U.S. consumption of bacon increased 2.4% from 2001 to 2013, with Americans consuming about 1.1 billion servings of bacon annually.

Pork belly is found on 8.7% of U.S. menus -- a 59% increase in the number of restaurants serving products from the cut since 2014. Bacon is served in seven out of 10 U.S. restaurants.

The Pork Board report also indicated that increased demand for bacon over the last few decades is due to its growing appeal beyond breakfast.

“We’re producing more and more hogs here at home, and pork bellies are only one cut, but we have to remember America’s appetite for bacon,” Anderson said. “Bacon is on everything these days.”

Rollercoaster market

Anderson said cold storage holdings could indicate that bacon-producing companies and restaurants are building supplies in case there is a shortage and prices begin to rise, but he also noted that large belly stocks are related to record hog and pork production.

Expectations for a shortage and subsequent price increases, rising exports to China, the ongoing trade dispute, how African swine fever continues to affect China’s swine herd, U.S. production and stockpile levels add to the commodity’s uncertain future and, ultimately, market volatility.

Anderson said pork belly prices have been “on a roller coaster for a while now” -- well before Chinese supplies became a factor.

For now, Anderson expects that U.S. pork exports to China will continue to grow as the Chinese continue to deal with swine fever.

“All these stories could be true in the future, even though they appear to be at odds with what is going on with production,” he said. “We’ll just have to wait and see if export growth is larger than production growth to the point it cuts into domestic supplies and causes prices to rise here at home.”

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