Are These End Times for Meat?

Bacon shortage hoax aside, there is a major crisis looming in our meat supply

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Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A pig farm in Strawn, Ill., March 22, 2012.

I’m happy that last week’s bacon shortage turned out to be something of a hoax, as critics like Slate’s Matt Yglesias took pains to make clear. Not that anybody was really that alarmed; the news was fodder for all kinds of comedy. Hailed as the “aporkalypse” by the Huffington Post, it was greeted by Stephen Colbert as an Obama-borne stalking horse for sharia law. The story passed into and out of the news cycle in approximately three days, or one-fourth the time of Lady Gaga’s muffintop.

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But while the bacon panic wasn’t real, there is a crisis in our meat supply and it’s no joke. We produce a lot of meat, but we feed a lot of Americans, and more all the time, thanks to the simple laws of multiplication, along with the simple addition of immigration. There is a drought, so there is less grain and corn for the animals to eat. Most of the producers are marginally profitable at best, and Americans refuse to pay more for meat than they do for Froot Loops, despite the fact that no one has to raise and feed and kill and process Froot Loops. I’m not kidding about this: go to the supermarket and see how much a package of pork chops cost, or half a chicken, and then compare that price to a box of Froot Loops.

All the things that consumers have, rightly, come to fear and distrust about the meat industry are a result of this problem. Hormones, to make the animals grow faster? Check. Antibiotics, to allow animals be cramped and crammed and stressed without dying of infections? Check. Farrowing crates and beak clipping, so as to squeeze more meat more efficiently out of factories? Check. Even the vile pink slime that everyone hates so much is simply a product, literally, of the beef industry’s need to get maximal yield out of each animal. We all love happy animals on small farms, but there’s no way to feed Americans living in or near poverty, as well as having tons of meat to export to China and elsewhere. The result is that producers are bumping off animals as fast as they can and getting out of the business before feed costs get worse and they are forced out. That’s where the bacon shortage comes in. Less pigs, less pork, less pork bellies for yummy, smoky bacon.

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There is also the ethanol problem. “Corn used to cost us two to three dollars a bushel,” Scott Sechler, the owner of Bell & Evans, a high-end chicken producer, told me. “Now it’s eight or nine. That’s why you’re seeing all these shortcuts and other issues in the meat business. We have started a food inflation cycle that may grow out of control.” (Disclosure: Bell & Evans is a sponsor of my annual event Meatopia.) Sechler, along with many other meat producers, puts a big part of the blame on federal ethanol regulations. This isn’t a simple case of corrupt lobbyists for evil corporations, sadly; this is the flip side of one of the few remaining efforts by the EPA to postpone the end of the world by lowering greenhouse emissions. Ethanol is better for the environment than gasoline, but it requires 40% of the country’s total corn crop, by most measures. So that’s almost half of a corn crop that is already reduced by the drought and which needs to feed more animals every year to keep up with domestic and foreign meat appetites. Another side effect is that many producers end up buying ethanol by-products to use as feed, which are as gross as you might imagine, and which have the further effect of smuggling antibiotics into animals, since they are used extensively in corn farming.

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We need not fear the aporkalypse. We won’t be chomping soy pellets for dinner anytime soon. But the way things are going, meat will be more expensive, more unhealthy, and scarcer as time goes on. Even now the best meat, branded as “heritage” or “small farm,” has become a luxury item, available in a few stores and greenmarkets, to a lucky few. Cheap meat, though, of the kind Americans ate at the best of times, may soon be a myth and a memory.

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