Easter Ham Prices Spike as Hog Disease Roils Pork Markets

(Bloomberg) -- Easter may be a little costlier for U.S. consumers, thanks to African swine fever that is devastating hog herds in China.

Retail prices for boneless hams in March hit $4.31 per pound, the highest since March 2015, according to Department of Agriculture data. The 7.6 percent monthly price spike was the biggest in at least 12 years.

Since the outbreak of the disease in August, more than 1 million pigs have been culled in China, sending global pork prices soaring. Chinese buyers have turned to exporters including the U.S. to fill a supply gap. Now, pork cuts from bellies to loins to hams are costlier with Easter, the third most popular holiday for ham consumption, around the corner.

Still, sales aren’t lagging, according to Jo Ann Herold, chief marketing officer at Honey Baked Ham Co. “With the later Easter, it’s been longer since they’ve been with family and friends for a holiday occasion," she said. "People want to celebrate.”

Easter Ham Prices Spike as Hog Disease Roils Pork Markets

While Chinese pork production fell, output in the U.S. was almost record-high. “It’s not like we’re running out of pork or running out of hams,” said Steve Wagner, a livestock analyst at Saint Paul, Minnesota-based CHS Hedging Inc.

Smithfield Foods Inc. said the trend toward smaller families resulted in some consumers favoring smaller hams. The company, the top U.S. pork producer, pointed to IRI data showing that 60 percent of U.S. households had 2 or fewer people last year. Smithfield has introduced pecan praline and baked apple spice hams to go along with traditional hickory smoked and brown sugar flavors, according to chief marketing officer Tim Zimmer.

While pork prices have spiked, more moderate prices for other meats from beef to poultry are providing other options for Easter supper. At Whole Foods Market, customers are looking for lamb as their main dish for Easter, said global meat buyer Theo Weening. A ham, typically eight or nine pounds, is the side to the main, he said in an email.

“Because the hams are pre-sliced and really easy to warm up and put on the table, it’s convenient to bring to an Easter meal when you’re not hosting or to have on hand for bigger groups as a supplement to the main dish,” Weening said.

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