While shopping for my Memorial Day cook-out last weekend, I experienced a lethal dose of sticker shock. Steaks, roasts, spare ribs, pork loin, even ground beef were commanding prices that were a good five to nine percent higher than they were at the start of the year. Unfortunately, it appears prices will go higher still in the months ahead. Here’s why.
Remember the Drought of 2012? The results of that dry period are still having repercussions on food prices today. Back in July of that year this is what I wrote:
“If one looks at just the price of corn in the United States, which has increased in price by 38% since June 1, it is not hard to predict increases in processed food prices by the winter. Since other staples, like soybeans and wheat, are also wilting in the heat there could be a domino effect across the board for all kinds of agricultural products.”
That domino effect had an interesting and long-lasting impact over the short and medium terms for all sorts of food stuffs including beef and pork prices. This was my advice back then.
“It might surprise you, however, that the prices of beef, poultry and pork might actually decline in the short term. That’s because livestock producers would rather send their herds to slaughter now than face the increased costs of feeding them in the future. Out West, (today’s potential Dust Bowl) many ranchers have simply run out of range land that could support their herds. As this new supply of livestock is dumped on the market, prices should ease a bit before heading up, so plan accordingly. The best strategy would be to stock up now and freeze for the future.”
I hope you took my advice and have a very big freezer.
Fast forward to today, almost two years later, and we find that meat prices have seen almost record monthly increases across the nation. As a result of the drought and the subsequent livestock slaughter that followed, the U.S. now has the lowest cattle numbers since 1951. Inventory continues to decline. At some point ranchers and farmers will begin to re-build their stock as prices continue to move higher. But there is no quick fix because it takes at least 18 months for a calf to become market ready. Some experts estimate it could take up to three or four years before the nation’s herds are back to what they were before the drought.
As for pork prices, the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus is a major cause of reduced pork production. The virus has now spread to 26 states with devastating effect. The pork industry lost almost 8 million animals, mostly piglets, to the disease over the last year. As a result, the USDA is expecting a 2.3% decline in overall pork production for 2014. In the meantime, most food analysts are expecting the consumer to pare back on meat purchases and substitute chicken in their diets. It is much cheaper per pound and mush easier to increase production. It would only require six months or so to meet added demand. However, I am betting poultry prices will see some price inflation as well. As for meat, it appears that higher prices are going to be with us for the foreseeable future.
And there may be more bad news for U.S. consumers. Analysts are betting that the return of El Niño this year, somewhere between August and October, will have a negative impact on certain crop yields. El Niño, readers may recall, is a climatic phenomenon caused by warm waters in the Pacific Ocean that can trigger ferocious rain and flooding in some areas while drought in others. In the past, this weather event has caused devastating crop losses. In turn, this has resulted in huge and sudden price spikes, especially in soft commodities like sugar, coffee, cotton and cocoa. The last “super El Niño” was in 1997. That year, from Florida to California, there were storms, tornadoes and mudslides.
The bottom line is that you can expect food prices across the board to keep climbing. So welcome to America, a land where there is no “official” inflation, unless you need to eat, consume gasoline, buy clothing, rent space, put a child through school or pay medical bills.