Record U.S. pork stocks spell affordable Easter hams, robust bacon demand

CHICAGO, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Efforts by hog farmers to corral a killer pig virus paid off in January, with U.S. warehouses recording the most pork ever for that month, based on Tuesday’s U.S. Department of Agriculture Cold Storage report.

Record pork storage will likely make Easter ham prices easier to swallow, analysts said. It also reflects continued brisk bacon demand.

Tuesday’s report showed January pork stocks hit 637.0 million pounds, an all-time high for the month since the government begin tabulating the data in 1915.

Pork storage comparisons to 1915 should be put into context, said David Maloni, chief commodity strategist with the American Restaurant Association Inc.

The scale of modern-day hog production dwarfs output in the early 1900s, and electricity then was not widespread which limited the number of storage facilities that would have been available, said experts.

Nonetheless, they said abundant pork reflects record pigs per litter that survived the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus, which killed an estimated 8 million pigs over the past three years.

Maloni said January’s pork record speaks to improved protein supplies that are “generally good news for our clients, restaurant chains, consumers and manufacturers.”

January hams, a Easter staple, totaled 111.2 million lbs, a record monthly high, nipping last year’s 110.4 million lb January top.

Ham storage usually peaks in January after processors stockpile product in preparation for the Easter holiday, which this year falls on March 27.

“Easter is early this year, and our models suggest ham prices should move lower in the coming weeks,” said Maloni.

Pork bellies, which are later thawed and widely used in bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches during the summer, totaled 60.7 million pounds, up 14 percent from December and up 13 percent from a year earlier.

Bob Brown, an independent market analyst in Edmond, Oklahoma, said record hog production yielded more pork bellies, but strong demand kept those prices high year-over-year.

“Every fast-food outlet has some type of bacon promotion going on, including bacon-wrapped pizza. Bellies have saved the pork industry’s bacon this year,” said Brown.

He said it is too early to tell how bacon costs will play out over the summer.

Tuesday’s report showed January beef stocks at 518.5 million lbs, which was also the highest since USDA begin tracking the data in 1915.

Seasonally sluggish wholesale beef demand, heavy cattle weights year over year and plentiful pork and chicken contributed to the recent string of record beef stocks, said experts. (Editing by Matthew Lewis)