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Thursday, April 27, 2017 08:30 am

Pork bellies -- and much else -- explained

 In "The hog and I" (April 20, 2017) I recalled a magazine article I wrote in 1982 about the hog industry. It was a fun piece, but the information in it is badly dated; the funniest bit is where I report that worries about the health effects of animal fats, and salt and preservatives used in bacon, had led per capita bacon consumption dropping by nearly 30 percent since 1965.

I won't trouble you with the whole piece, but here's a short sidebar about the pork belly per se that non-farmers might find interesting. From Across the Board magazine, May 1982.

It is an incontrovertible biological fact that every hog has a belly (typical weight: 12-16 pounds). Bacon is made from the belly, and though bacon may have lost some of its appeal on the breakfast table it remains a favorite among commodity speculators on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A livestock analyst with the Illinois Farm Bureau, Roger Norem, explains: "There are big profits in bellies, and big losses. It's a very speculative market. Definitely not for the faint of heart."

The belly market rises and falls with seasonal tides, mainly (now that breeders have perfected the year-round hog) in demand. After November 1, for instance, uncured or "green" bellies are moved into storage where they remain until spring, when processors stock up in anticipation of summer demand for processed lunch meats and that American classic, the BLT. The total supply of hogs affects this traffic, naturally, as do general economic conditions. Unlike their plight when gasoline prices zoom, Americans have ready substitutes when meat gets too expensive, and a consumer switch to peanut butter can leave the belly pits very dark indeed. As is the case with some other hot commodities, the price of bellies on the floor often has little to do with their value in the supermarket. "The traders are mostly trying to pick each others' pockets," points out Norem.            

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