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September 26, 2012

Lean times ahead for bacon lovers +survey

Severe droughts have pushed food prices so high that Bobby Williams took apples off the menu at his Lizard’s Thicket restaurants this year, and he might stop selling corn.

But he would never consider nixing bacon – despite a report Tuesday that a worldwide bacon shortage will be “unavoidable” next year and could drive prices up as much as 10 percent in grocery stores.

“We would be run out of town,” said Williams, CEO of the Southern cooking restaurant that has been a Columbia staple for 35 years.

Prices are projected to skyrocket for a range of foods toward the end of the year and into next as the nation grapples with a corn shortage resulting from a severe drought out West. Corn is a staple in most grocery store products — including pig feed.

“We all know that because of the corn shortage, everything is going to go up,” Williams said.

But when it comes to bacon, barbecue and other piggy products, Americans – and perhaps Southerners in particular – tend to sit up and take notice.

News sites and social media exploded Tuesday as folks began to get wind of a prediction made by Britain’s National Pig Association of a global shortage of bacon and other pork products. The group said a shortage was unavoidable in 2013 because herds are being thinned as food supplies diminish.

Steve Meyer, an Adel, Iowa-based consulting economist to the National Pork Board, said he expects record-high prices for pork next year as supplies diminish.

“You’re not going to have to stand in line to buy it,” Meyer said. “But we will have less pounds of pork” than this year. And supermarket prices likely will be about 6 percent to 10 percent higher than they are now, he said.

The trend likely will continue into 2014, he said, adding that prices could moderate later that year or in 2015 if drought conditions improve.

“It’s going to be a while,” he said.

In Columbia, shoppers can score a typical package of bacon for between $5.99 and $6.99 at regular prices, or even as low as $3 when it is on sale, said Grenade Brothers, co-operator of the Piggly Wiggly on Forest Drive.

Prices on bacon haven’t spiked any more percentage-wise than other grocery products in recent years, he said. And people are still buying it as much as they always have.

If prices do go up in the next year by up to 10 percent, “I would think (sales) may tail off just a little,” he said.

But, “bacon’s always been a staple,” he said. Consumers eat it on breakfast burritos, salads and BLT’s. It has even become a chic treat, stuffed in chocolate bars and topping ice cream.

“Especially in the South we eat it on everything,” Brothers said. “That’s just the way it is.”

Darrell Barnes, an owner of Yesterday’s restaurant in Five Points, said while the report from the group in Britain isn’t complete hogwash, it is “a little bit of hysteria.”

Barnes said the report, which advised supermarkets to pay pig farmers a fair price, reeked of self-interest.

But there is no doubt that pork prices have been on the rise already in recent years.

Williams, of Lizard’s Thicket, said he was paying $40 for a 20-pound box of bacon two years ago. Today, the price has spiked as much as 85 percent to $74 a case.

If prices keep going up, the restaurant would raise prices before it would stop selling bacon.

“We try to wait as long as we can,” he said.

Williams tried to take catfish off the menu earlier this year because of rising prices, but customers wanted it so he put it back on the menu and added $1 a plate to the price.

Williams said the next 12 months will be the most “interesting” year in his 35 years in the business with food prices.

Eggs went up to $1.50 a dozen from $1 a dozen overnight a couple of weeks ago, he said.

“We are going to have to take some things off the menu or else raise our prices,” he said. “Even corn might have to come off the menu next year.”

Yesterday’s Barnes said he will still serve bacon cheeseburgers – even if he has to go up 10- to 20-cents a burger – but he also will get creative, maybe topping a burger with spinach and feta cheese or a portabella mushroom.

Still, he knows that “people who want (bacon) are still going to eat it.”

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