The urgent demand for bacon depleted frozen pork belly supplies in the U.S. to a record low level for December, but the pork industry is confident it can keep up with demand and avoid any serious shortages.
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 December inventory since records began in 1957. In comparison, more than 52.3 million pounds of pork bellies, the cut of the hog from which bacon is derive, remained in storage in December 2015.
But the truth is this: The frozen reserves are just that — reserves. Pork bellies are usually stockpiled in freezers at the end of the year and the first few months of the next year to get through the summer peak months when bacon consumption is highest, This season, bacon demand was high enough that fresh pork bellies were used as quickly as they were produced, leaving significantly less meat to store.
Prices at the wholesale level already are showing an increase. Tuesday’s pork belly prices were at $1.71 a pound, about 37 percent higher than this time last year, said Russel Barton, a market reporter for protein analyst firm Urner Barry. Retail bacon prices haven’t jumped significantly but could climb as the industry works to catch up.
“What this says is there was excellent product movement in the fourth quarter of 2016,” said Steve Meyer, a pork industry economist for Express Markets Inc., which tracks industry trends for retailers and foodservice companies.
But, we repeat, bacon lovers have nothing to fear. According to Mr. Meyer, the United States produces almost 75 million pounds of pork belly every week. "We're going to slaughter about 3 percent more pigs this year than we did last year — a record number," he said. "Bacon production will be higher than it's ever been.