Boom times for pork in the US as summer grilling seasons gets going

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 May, 2017, 1:32am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 May, 2017, 1:32am

It’s boom times for pork enthusiasts.

Americans celebrating Memorial Day this weekend -- the unofficial kick-off to summer and the grilling season -- can keep the party going with cheaper pork chops.

Even amid voracious domestic and foreign demand, retail prices have stayed relatively low thanks to ample supplies. Bumper grain crops have reduced costs to feed animals, and the US is heading for a year of record red meat and poultry production. While output is booming across the board, pork is looking especially attractive since it’s discount to beef has been widening, favouring more pig pickin’s and baby-back-rib feasts for the summer.

“Consumers are going to have their pick when it comes to protein, at prices that are better than what they’ve seen in a few years,” Will Sawyer, an Atlanta-based director of animal-protein research at Rabobank International, said by phone. “It’s a good time to be a carnivore.”

After the Fourth of July, Memorial Day is the most popular occasion for barbecuing, a survey by Weber-Stephen Products LLC showed. Americans spent about US$208 million on pork for the holiday in 2016, data from market researcher Nielsen show.

Retail prices have fallen just in time for the parties. Pork chops in April were the lowest for the month since 2011, the latest US government data show. While bacon has climbed from a year ago, it’s still down more than 5 per cent from a peak reached in June 2014. Pork has also gotten relatively cheaper when compared with beef, at the wholesale level.

At 17th Street Barbecue, which has two locations in southern Illinois, co-owner Amy Mills said the summer months are the busiest period. The store’s top-selling items are pulled-pork sandwiches and baby-back ribs, and they also roast a whole hog once a week.

“We’ve just come off of one banner year, and it looks like we’re heading into another one,” said Mills, who released a book of grilling recipes this month called “Praise the Lard.” “Fortunately for us, the demand is high, but the kills are high. They’re raising more hogs.”

The US hog herd was up 4.2 per cent over last year as of March 1, the latest USDA data show.

While pork production is soaring, demand has grown faster. The gains helped pushed spot-hog prices up 26 per cent so far in May, a sign that retail costs may not stay low for long.

US per-capita pork consumption in 2017 is forecast up 0.8 per cent from 2016. In the first three months of the year, American exporters shipped 17 per cent more than in 2016, led by demand from Mexico and Japan, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

That’s soaking up big supplies. Stockpiles of pork in cold storage at the end of April were the lowest for the month since 2014, USDA data show.

“The demand profile has really offset a lot of the price pressures that are associated with growing supplies,” said Trevor Amen, an animal-protein economist at CoBank in Greenwood Village, Colorado.

Still, the recent price gains are also improving profit margins for producers, which may drive further expansion and help supplies catch up to demand. The USDA forecast output up 3.3 per cent next year.

In the meantime, Mills of 17th Street Barbecue says she’s paying less for some cuts of pork. Prices for loin back ribs are about US$3.66 a pound, compared with US$3.89 at this time in 2016.