On October 23, the American Farm Bureau's Newsline ran a story that suggests a slight but significant change in American meat consumption is about to take place. Beef, the once mighty king of meats, which has already lost its top spot in the meat case to chicken, might soon stumble to third place behind pork.
The story was headlined "Pork Production Could Surpass Beef Production In 2015" and the details came from American Farm Bureau chief economist Bob Young, who was interviewed by Micheal Clements.
Young said, "I do really think we’re going to talk about more pork production. USDA’s calling for it, a number of other groups are calling for it, and that situation looks like it’s going to continue for at least the next five-six-seven-eight years or so out in front of us so (we're) entering into new territory here."
Young based his prediction partly on the long drought which forced a dramatic reduction in cattle herd size, now its smallest since the early 1950's. It cut back America's beef supply at a time when worldwide demand was expanding. The result has been a steady increase in retail pricing.
"It just takes a long time for us to bring those additional animals back on, to bring supply back up," Young said. "We've been pulling this herd down for a long, long time. It’s going to take us quite a while I think to get those supplies turned around and actually growing again."
Unmentioned were other compounding factors like our aging cattle rancher population and whether or not enough of them will be willing to risk rebuilding, especially in a still uncertain climate. Haunted by the vagaries of weather and the economy, it's at least a two year crap shoot to profitability. During that time span, shrewd marketing by poultry and pork processors will continue to chip away at the marketplace, taking more and more precious meat case real estate from beef.
There is another big-tusked, semi-visible, big fat elephant hiding under the dining room table. It's best described by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman who asked almost three years ago, "Is anyone in this country eating more meat than they used to?"
That smaller herd and increased retail prices have already created problems for beef. A not-quite-recovered economy, which has been replacing what was once well-paid middle class jobs with too many low and minimum wage jobs, is forcing an emphasis on what is politely called 'economy cuts' in the meat case. Cheaper chicken is the new queen of the hop and ground beef is gradually moving aside more expensive and profitable whole muscle cuts.
Steve Kay, one of the top beef industry observers and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly agrees on the price issue. "Consumers turn to pork and chicken because of price, not necessarily out of eating preference. For many, beef remains the meat treat and chicken the survival food," he said.
The question, then, is how much longer will economic stress push the average consumer to look for cheaper center of the plate items while in a survival mode? Will that 'meat treat' that is beef soon be enjoyed so infrequently that it can't regain its old, dominant position? Consumption has been steadily declining for almost a quarter century, is it capable now of turning the corner?
Kay remains optimistic about supply. "First, I'm not so sure pork will exceed beef production in 2015. USDA's beef forecast is lower than most analysts' forecasts; one has beef still ahead by nearly 400 million pounds. USDA might be under-estimating carcass weights. Second, 2014 likely saw modest beef cow herd expansion and 2015 will see a little more as well. So more cattle and thus more beef will be available in 2016 and 2017."
He predicted, "Beef production should exceed pork unless the hog sector expands its numbers unexpectedly. Beef will remain 'King of the meat case' in terms of consumer preference."
Unfortunately when money is tight and consumer confidence is low, price not preference translates into sales.