Washington Insider-- Thursday

Pork Bellies in the Limelight

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

USDA Working to Address Drop in Farmer Response to Crop Surveys

The drop in the number of U.S. farmers participating in crop production surveys has not negatively impacted the accuracy of results, said Lance Honig, branch chief for crops at USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

"We are concerned about the drop in responses, but they are still very good," Honig said in an interview with Bloomberg on the sidelines of the agency's annual data users meeting in Chicago on Tuesday.

The response rate for wheat, other Small Grains report on September 30 fell to a record low of 66.5%, noted by USDA Chief Economist Robert Johansson. The response rate for the October 12 Crop Production report for corn, soybeans and other crops was 71.6%.

USDA has organized an internal team and is working with various farm and commodity groups such as the National Corn Growers Association to boost survey responses.

Massachusetts Animal Welfare Ballot Measure Likely To Pass

Massachusetts will likely join 11 other states by establishing anti-cruelty rules increasing the size of some farm animal enclosures and regulating the sale of products from animals raised in extreme confinement in a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot.

That measure, Question 3, is a referendum that would prohibit egg-laying hens, calves raised for veal and breeding pigs from being housed in enclosures that prevent the animals from lying down, standing up, fully extending their limbs or turning around freely.

The measure would apply to animals and sales of products from them raised in Massachusetts and similar animal products made in other states. The referendum would establish a maximum $1,000 fine for each violation.

Voters will likely approve the initiative. In three polls, more than 60% of respondents in the state supported the initiative.

Washington Insider: Pork Bellies in the Limelight

Just when you thought the food police and the food elite were joining suit to remove everything tasty from U.S. menus, Bloomberg is reporting a resurgence in at least one old-fashioned product : bellies. Even the language the report uses seems out of the deep past; it calls bellies "rich in fat and salt," although "fat," "salt" and "rich" are not usually seen in the same sentence these days. The story this time is that the Arby's chain is attempting to 'democratize' a dish popular with fancy chefs, and so are others.

Bloomberg contrasts the pork belly offered at the upscale restaurant "Tru" in Chicago—with its wooden plate with pickled kohlrabi, enoki mushrooms, microparsley and a touch of espelette pepper from Spain. "The dish is part of an eight-course, $158 tasting menu," Bloomberg says.

It then focuses "about a mile south," where pork belly is also on the menu at the local Arby's, hickory-smoked and topped with cheddar cheese, barbecue sauce and fried onions in a star-cut bun.

Bloomberg says the sandwich is wrapped in paper, "which comes in handy when the first bite sends pork fat running free, threatening clothing and steering wheels. The price is $5.49."

Bloomberg thinks that bacon may continue to reign as the pig-part prince "but the belly is booming in cuisine both haute and bloat." It goes on; "those concerned about inequality between the wealthy and the rest of America can find consolation in this humble hunk of fatty heaven, which more than doubled its presence on U.S. menus since 2012.

What started with the experiments of adventurous chefs in restaurants decorated with the works of Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter has trickled down to fast-food foodies selling pork belly in tacos, Southeast Asian banh mi sandwiches and Chinese bao out of to-go shops, trucks and drive-thru windows."

Jim Taylor, head of product development at Atlanta-based Arby's Restaurant Group Inc., calls it the democratization of pork belly, the raw material for bacon. "We call it the bigger, badder bacon," Taylor said. "This could be the next chapter in America's love affair with bacon."

The facts seem a little more mundane. The price of pork bellies plunged to a seven-year seasonal low this fall as U.S. production jumped 3%. Bacon dishes bring in much less than dishes featuring belly. The average dish in a U.S. restaurant featuring pork belly cost $14.17 in the second quarter, compared with $9.56 for bacon. Bloomberg claims "that means restaurants are making a killing."

Chefs at Del Frisco's Restaurant Group Inc. said they began working with pork belly about two years ago to add more non-seafood appetizers. The chain sells a pork belly au poivre that's glazed with bourbon molasses for $14. "The relatively low cost is a bonus," Thomas Dritsas, vice president of culinary and corporate executive chef at the 51-restaurant company told Bloomberg.

Stephen Gerike, director of food-service marketing and innovation at the National Pork Board said, "Pork belly is hyperindulgent -- if you want to drive traffic and get attention, pork belly is going to increase same-store sales, because people will want to come and try it."

The popularity of bellies "is a fad, of course, that won't make American doctors happy," Bloomberg says. The sandwich, as Arby's prepares it, contains 860 calories and a whole day's worth of salt. And if that's not enough, Arby's has another sandwich on the menu with the same ingredients -- plus smoked brisket and turkey. It's called Smoked Mountain.

Well, it is interesting to find that not all heavy duty chefs are finger-wagging moralists who argue in high priced dead tree media that simply banning sugar, or something, would solve the nation's dietary problems. Still, the offer of one more 860 calorie sandwich probably is not good news, given the national problems with obesity that already exist. And, this trend toward fat, if it continues, would seem to add to the complexity of the ongoing debate about how the nation should react to its obesity epidemic, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN's Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

If you have questions for DTN Washington Insider, please email edit@dtn.com