Ham, a popular Easter dinner tradition, is costing families more this year.
Ham prices have been higher than usual for the past two years because the cost of pig feed has gone up, and some major pork producers are spending millions to convert barns as they phase out cramped cages used to confine pregnant sows.
Ham has been selling wholesale for 75 to 80 cents per pound this spring, which is in line with last year’s prices but well above the 55 cents per pound average for the previous five years.
On Chicago’s South Side at St. Ailbe Church food pantry, which makes Easter baskets for needy families, director Sammie Wayne noted prices for the ham he usually buys jumped 15 to 20 percent this year from last year.
“I didn’t order any this year, and that’s why,” he said, adding that as a substitute, “This year we’ll have more chicken.”
Both Jewel Osco and Dominick’s gave prices for shank ham that are 17 to 18 percent higher than a year ago.
Livestock economist Shane Ellis said the price of ham isn’t likely to drop soon because pork producers’ costs aren’t decreasing. Feed, which is mainly corn, is running about $6 a bushel – not far from the record $7.99 per bushel set last June.
Pork producers also are switching from gestation crates to more open pens amid public pressure from consumers and animal welfare advocates who believe the smaller cages are cruel. One major producer, Smithfield Foods, recently said it expects to spend nearly $300 million by 2017 to convert its barns.
The switch also requires more labor to manage the sows because they tend to fight. Some of those costs are likely to be passed on to consumers.
Americans consume about 51 pounds of pork a year on average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While ham is a traditional element of many Easter meals, Ellis said prices typically peak in June, near the height of the grilling season when demand is highest. The low point is usually at the end of the calendar year because that’s when large numbers of hogs reach the market.
Contributing: Sandra Guy and Francine Knowles