Pork, beef prices rising in the wake of disease and drought

photo These Montgomery, Ala., cows seem unaware of a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency to charge a fee for air-polluting cows and hogs.
photo The Signal Mountain Lions Club' grills burgers for its community barbecue.

Bringing home the bacon may be a luxury during the next nine months.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its April food price numbers this week, and the report shows what a lot of consumers and meat distributors already know: that meat is going up in price. Especially pork and beef.

An 8.4 percent jump in meat prices in April accounted for more than a third of last month's rise in producer prices.

"Worst ever. It's crazy," said Jeff Davis, owner of Shuford's Smokehouse in Chattanooga this week.

He said the climbing prices are killing his bottom line, and understandably so. A year ago, he was paying about $1.19 a pound for pork butt, which is used for barbecuing.

And he complained then about how expensive it was.

Right now, he's paying almost 70 cents more, $1.88 a pound for the same cut.

"We're jumping through hoops just to try and stay open," he said Thursday.

Disease among American swine is largely to blame for the hike.

Earlier this year, USDA officials warned Americans about a disease called porcine epidemic diarreah virus, which carries a high morbidity rate among piglets. Also, porcine deltacoronavirus -- a similar virus causing sickness among pigs -- has been identified in 29 states.

Both diseases cause diarreahal outbreaks among pigs which can be fatal, but neither are thought to be harmful to humans nor transmissable to other animals.

But that hasn't made it any easier for American swine.

Last year alone, up to 3 million pigs may have been lost to porcine epidemic virus alone, according to a December release by Bob Thaler, professor and swine specialist at South Dakota State University.

As of April 27, only 13 PEDV case had been reported in Tennessee, and none had been reported in Georgia or Alabama. Porcine deltacoronavirus had not been reported in any of the three states.

Lanny Cope operates Cope's Custom Slaughtering in White County, Tenn., and he confirms that the disease isn't terribly common around here.

USDA regulations aimed at cracking down on the diseases currently require close monitoring of all pork movement, and Cope said blood work is done on every animal that comes into his shop.

But he does see how the national disease outbreaks, when coupled with the rising average age of farmers -- currently about 61 -- and the rising costs of growing animals, are jacking up prices.

"I'm afraid people are going to wind up going hungry," he said. "It's very confusing what's going to happen."


In the beef market, meanwhile, there is also a reshuffling going on, as American beef producers try to come back from the loss of thousands of cattle to drought over the last few years.

USDA reports from January state that current U.S. cattle numbers have reached their lowest since the early and mid-1950s.

"The amount of beef per person has dropped," said Cattle Fax General Manager Duane Lenz this week. "And that's causing prices to go up."

As of Jan. 1, there were 87.7 million head of cattle in the country, compared to 317 million people.

Unlike fed pigs, however, fed cattle (fed specifically for slaughter) require a longer maturation period before reaching target size for meat. Where pigs typically require eight to nine months, cattle typically require two to three years.

That means while the pork market should bounce back in about a year, it could be up to three years before beef prices come back down to previous normal levels.

And that's with help from Mother Nature, should healthy rains return to places like Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and California, the four largest cattle producing states in the country.

Lenz said right now the beef industry is expanding, but it's happening slowly.

And until it takes off, American beef buyers can expect to see steady high prices for beef, and maybe even an increase here and there before things get better.

That news has Davis and the folks at Shuford's battening down the hatches and preparing for what may be a rocky few months ahead. He doesn't know if the barbecue joint will even have pork come late summer.

And if things keep going this way, he said beef and pork will eventually cost the same as chicken for the first time on his menu.

"The whole thing's crazy," he said Thursday. "I don't know where it's going to end."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.