Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2010 Good Time to Become Vegetarian

Even without saying it in so many words, some leading US economists are predicting 2010 to be a good time to become a vegetarian.  What they're actually saying is that the pace of food inflation will double next year and go even higher for protein-based commodities such as beef, chicken, and pork.  Milk and dairy prices are expected to soar, too.

What's driving this trend is the rapidly rising cost of livestock feed in the past few years.  Producers have culled their herds to minimize their expenditures on feed.  There are simply fewer food animals being taken to market these days, with no expectation of improvement in the coming year.  This reduction in supply is expected to continue for at least the next several years.

Swinging in the opposite economic direction is demand for these commodities by consumers in the US and abroad.  Many experts believe the prolonged economic recession is bottoming out and consumer confidence is returning.  Once-worried consumers are filling their shopping carts higher at the supermarket and many of them plan to buy more meats and dairy products than they've felt comfortable buying lately.

Mike Swanson, a senior economist for Wells Fargo & Company, predicts food prices jumping by as much as 6% in the coming year, a prediction that tops that of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which predicts an increase of 3% to 4%.  Swanson says demand for corn, a primary livestock feed, is skyrocketing, thanks to its value in ethanol production.  The demands of both industries - ethanol and livestock feed - have raised corn values higher than livestock values.

At the Goldman Sachs Group Inc., economists predict cattle futures for next year will increase more than they've done since 1978; hog futures will be their highest in six years.  Goldman's Jeffrey Currie warns that "economic recovery suggests rising meat demand amid tighter supplies."

Bill Lapp, of Advanced Economic Solutions LLC, a commodities research firm based in Omaha, Nebraska, predicts a 20% rise in diary prices in coming months, topping the inflationary rate for all other food commodities.  Decreased livestock production and increased costs of feed, compounded with higher fuel costs, will undoubtedly affect the American consumer.  Lapp predicts restaurants and food manufacturers will be hit hardest by this inflationary trend.

I predict it will be the consumer who will actually be hit hardest of all.  Go vegetarian.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fast Food Meats Higher Quality Than School Lunches

For so many American kids, a substantial number of their meals come from fast-food restaurant chains and the school lunchroom.  We've become indoctrinated to the questionable quality of fast food meats and other dishes but most people assume school lunches meet more rigorous standards.  According to a recently released study, they don't.  In fact, some fast food chains required higher quality meats than what is served in school.

Meat donations stock the larders at school pantries across the nation, thanks to the National School Lunch Program and meat donated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).  USDA regulations call for school meat to pass higher quality standards than retail meats sold directly to consumers and that it meet or exceed standards applied to commercial-grade meats.  Investigative reporters for USA Today find this isn't exactly the case.

The USDA requires beef served in schools to be tested for bacteria and other potentially dangerous microbes at least once during a typical day of production.  Retailers such as CostCo, Burger King, and McDonald's test their meat products five to ten times a day.

Raw meat without bacterial presence is an impossibility but the meat can still be safely consumed if these bacteria are kept in check.  Those checks vary significantly, however, between the school standards and fast food retailers.  Jack in the Box, for one, sets their safety level for bacterial presence 10 times higher, meaning 10 times fewer germs, than the USDA does for school lunches.

School kids eat the meat of spent hens, those old birds past their prime egg-laying years.  Spent hens that don't make it onto the plates of our school children end up in pet food and compost.  Colonel Sanders won't have them; KFC never buys spent hens and Campbell Soup says they quit using them ten years ago because of quality considerations.  Even without relying on these old, tough chickens our school kids eat, Campbell's third-quarter profits were higher than expected.  That bigger bottom line was attributed to lower costs for raw products - but not these old chickens - and higher prices at the supermarket.

Parents alarmed by this news of lax standards in school lunches can take heart.  A recent poll of family meal habits shows 60% of all American families enjoying dinner together at home five out of seven evenings and most of these family meals are cooked at home, where parents are free to set levels of quality themselves.  We can't always know what we might confront out there in the world but we can know that the better we take care of ourselves in the home, the better we'll be able to fend off any ill effects of the great unknown.