America has an obesity problem.
It's not overweight people at risk of severe health problems and skyrocketing medical costs. That's a discussion for after the holidays. The problem at hand, which could affect millions, is far more troubling — and it has to do with pigs.
Hogs in the United States are too fat, and ham has never been more expensive than it is right now, which means that traditional hams — a staple of many an American Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner — could be priced off the menu this holiday season.
A new report from Bloomberg says that pigs in the US are the heaviest they've ever been. This may mean more pork per pig, but it's a problem because the hefty hogs' hind legs are too big to produce the 7-pound, spiral-cut half hams that commonly adorn the family holiday table.
The 7-pounders are the most in-demand hams during the holidays, HoneyBaked Ham Co.'s CFO Brian Mariuz told Bloomberg. But the cuts are also in the lowest supply.
The meat industry might have slaughtered more than 92 million hogs this year, but that's down from some 97 million over the same period in 2013, according to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures. The 5 percent decline is due mainly to the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus that hit stockyards earlier this year, the USDA said.
To try and recoup losses from piglets that died from the virus, hog farmers fed surviving pigs for longer to fatten them up. The pigs weighed a resulting 215.5 pounds this year on average — the biggest in US hog history — which proved too big to slice into the sought-after half hams, according to Mariuz.
The half ham shortage comes at a bad time for the pork industry; Americans consume half of their annual ham over the Thanksgiving and Christmas period. It also means skyrocketing of ham retail prices, which were up a record 26 percent this year to $3.43 a pound, according to the USDA.
The ham shortage doesn't appear to be serious enough to make hams unavailable for the holiday season, but it's not clear how US consumers will swallow the price hikes on spiral hams.
If any good news is hiding in the pork report, it's that pork belly — where bacon comes from — is as cheap as it's been in five years. So, if you find your holiday spread without ham, maybe you can compensate with pounds of bacon.
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