American appetite for bacon nearly outstrips supply

Thursday, February 2, 2017

People have been keeping and eating pigs for at least 9,000 years, but the modern American pork industry began at the behest of Queen Isabella of Spain, who persuaded Christopher Columbus to load a few onto his ship.

Later explorer Hernando de Soto was famous for expanding a baker's dozen of animals into a herd of more than 700 in just three years, but swine producers had a problem.

Fresh meat was the rule in the days before refrigeration, but customers and products weren't always available at the same time.

Butchers found that by cutting the belly from a pig, smoking and salting it, they could extend its life. Construction of the rail system and refrigeration -- North Platte was once the home of one of the largest artificial ice houses in the world -- city folks were able to enjoy pork bellies as easily as their country cousins.

Get into a discussion about economics and the subject of trading commodities, and pork bellies will come up as a volatile illustration of supply and demand.

We remember the dark days of a few years ago when you could actually obtain a freezer's worth of pork for free if you would pay for the processing.

Pork is the top-consumed meat in the world today, with more exports heading to China and Japan than ever before -- provided Trump administration activities don't stifle that trade.

Spend any time on social media and you'll notice short cooking videos, 90 percent of which seem to involve bacon.

This Sunday's snack menu is likely to include everything from jalapeņo bacon, bacon apple pie, doughnuts with bacon and chocolate-covered bacon slices -- demand has grown to the point that supply is unable to keep up.

Fast food has reacted with all sorts of bacon-enhanced meals, including McDonald's decision to sell breakfast all day.

Wholesalers traditionally stockpile frozen pork bellies for peak summertime demand, but popularity has grown to the point that the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last week that pork bellies in cold storage fell to 17.7 million pounds last month, the lowest inventory since records began in 1957.

As a result of pork bellies going to the table as quickly as they are being produced, the market responded, pushing prices Tuesday to $1.71 a pound, about 37 percent higher than the same time last year.

Will bacon-wrapped chocolate puffs become an unaffordable delicacy?

"Don't worry," say pork producers, "we'll make more." At least four new processing plants will go up in the next few years, in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Michigan.

Prices may rise a little, but thanks to the pork industry's ability to respond rather quickly, you'll still be able to afford your bacon-wrapped filet mignon hot off the grill next summer.

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