From Drug Cartels to Worm Shortages: Why Food is So Pricey in America

Sorry, America – your food is getting more expensive.

Fifty-nine per cent of Americans are spending more on their groceries this year, according to a recent Gallup survey.The price of beef is up 11%, pork 9.4%, and fish 4.2%. Even chicken prices have gone up.

Food prices are volatile, because they are affected by weather and disease. Last year, Florida's orange crop was affected by a bug that caused the fruit to shrink and fall off the trees early. Over the past two years, bacon prices have spiked because of a virus that is killing millions of baby pigs. (The virus, porcine epidemic diarrhea, thrives in cold weather.) Bananas in Asia and parts of Australia have been hit by a deadly banana plague, and drought in California has led to increase in prices of produce like avocados, grapes, lettuce and tomatoes.

But there are also some more unusual factors increasing the price of some of our key purchases.

Fertility fears

In the past, when prices of beef and pork went up, Americans could rely on chicken to see them through. But the price of chicken is also going up – because US producers face a shortage of roosters to mate with their hens.

The problem first came to light last year, when Sanderson Farms noticed fewer chicks being hatched. According to Reuters, typically about 15% of eggs laid at Sanderson fail to hatch. Last year, that number was about 17%. A drop in roosters' fertility has been determined to be genetic. Aviagen, a company that supplies Sanderson with its roosters, tweaks their genetics to improve them, according to Sanderson chief financial officer Mike Cockrell.

To avoid running into a similar problem, the beef industry is co-ordinating with the US dairy industry.

"Because of drastic reductions in the beef cow herd, dairy cattle bred to beef bulls may help offset shortages in the beef supply chain," said Richard Williams, general manager for ABS Global, which specializes in bovine genetics and reproduction services.

"Dairy industry changes, economics and advanced artificial insemination technologies – such as sorted semen – are increasing interest in cross-breeding high-quality beef bulls with dairy cows."

Drug cartels

Forget weather, disease and pests. Mexican lime farmers have way bigger problems, according to PBS. With drug smuggling becoming more difficult, a Mexican drug cartel known as the Knights Templar figured it would get in on the lime export businesses. How? By "taxing" lime farmers.

One farmer estimated he had paid 10% of his sales, equivalent to $2,000 a week, to the Knights Templar, according to NPR. Resistance from some farmers has led to shootouts and number of deaths.

It's not just unrest in Mexico that is affecting the price of our groceries, either. Because of the political crisis in Ukraine, the price of corn and wheat has gone up.

Lack of worms

Thinking of saving money by catching your own fish? Hopefully you've stocked up on bait.

It seems US fishermen can't catch a break. Last year, fly fishermen had to scramble for bait as fashion-conscious customers looked to fly shops for a supply of feathers. This year, fishermen are dealing with the shortage of fat worms known as nightcrawlers. The stores that do have them are selling them at higher prices.

A long winter delayed the picking season, which usually takes place in Ontario, Canada, according to the Wall Street Journal. And with May being dryer than usual, the picking season did not get off to a good start. Worms love moisture. So pickers demanded higher pay, driving companies to raise their prices.

Whisky over a barrel

For those of us who consider whiskey to be one of the main food groups, news of a looming shortage has been heart-breaking. We could blame millennials, who have adopted whiskey as their drink of choice, or women, who now dare drink whiskey openly.

As the industry scrambles to meet the increase in demand, there is one major hurdle: a shortage of wood. More specifically, a shortage of American oak barrels.

“There is definitely a shortage of barrels on the marketplace,” Paul Hletko, founder of Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, told The Spirits Business earlier this year.

It turns out that a "harsh, wet" winter has affected the US logging industry, which in turn has led to fewer barrels being produced. Experts predict that the issue will be "short lived" – lasting at most two years.

But for some of us, dealing with a whiskey shortage and higher prices for two years seems like a long time.


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