Any way you slice it

Published on June 25, 2014

It’s a bacon-tastrophe. In a single month, bacon prices have surged by 9.3 per cent. It is now 20.5 per cent more expensive than it was last June, and producers are finding new and different ways to hide the jump.

Probably the cutest strategy is the change in bacon packaging: 500-gram packages have slid to 375 grams while the price per package has held steady. That’s something that feels a bit like sleight-of-hand, because the change in packaging size wasn’t really announced by producers and means a drop, on average, of four slices per package.

So what’s going on? Is it the porcine equivalent of the Hunt brothers? (In 1979, Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt tried to buy control of the world’s silver supply, driving silver prices up hugely for a period of time but eventually resulting in the Hunts going bankrupt.) Are there mystery hog barons out there, doing their best to finagle the availability of sow bellies? Is there a trotter-and-pig-knuckle cartel at work, tightening the screws on the pork supply while they rub their hands together and watch the prices rise?

Well, no.

But it is supply and demand. Demand can certainly be high — because some people really like their bacon (and some take it to ridiculous extremes, like the folks at Epic Meal Time; Check this out:

But the kicker this time around is supply and a collision of different factors.

First, pork has held at a very low price point for several years — a block of Canadian pork producers simply weren’t able to survive the pinch between high feed costs and low prices and got out of the pork business. In Manitoba alone, in a 15-year period, the number of hog farmers has dropped from more than 5,000 producers to fewer than 500 by 2012.

And then there’s PED — porcine epidemic diarrhea, a virus which, while it doesn’t affect humans, kills piglets, droping the number of pigs in production drastically. With nursing piglets, the virus has up to 100 per cent mortality, according to the Canadian Swine Health Board. (Who know such a thing even existed? Here’s how it describes itself: “The Canadian Swine Health Board (CSHB) provides leadership, co-ordination and support in the management of the health of the Canadian swine herd. Through an inclusive approach involving all stakeholders, the CSHB develops and implements long-term strategies for control of diseases in the hog industry.”)

PED has been a problem in the U.S. for years, but has recently been found in Canada.

But back to bringing home the bacon. It doesn’t look like it’s going to get any easier.

Hog futures on U.S. markets continued to climb this week, with Dow Jones Business News reporting “U.S. hog futures jumped to a record Monday, signalling that grocery shoppers could face further increases in pork prices in the months ahead. Hog futures for July, the front-month contract, gained 0.47 cent, or 0.4 per cent, to $1.283 a pound at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, surpassing the previous record settlement reached on Thursday.”

The bottom line? Instead of being four slices smaller, maybe the next bacon package will only have four slices. And bacon may soon be as harmful to your wallet as it is to, well, your health.