Mr. Pope is the chief executive officer of Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer by volume. He doesn’t mince words when it comes to rapidly rising food prices. The 56-year-old accountant by training has been in the business for more than three decades, and he warns that the higher costs may be here to stay.
Courtesy of? “I’m not going to say, ‘a political policy,'” he tells me. (His senior vice president, a lawyer by training, sits close by, ready to “kick his leg” if his garrulous boss speaks too plainly.) But politics indeed plays a large role, as Congress subsidizes favorite industries and the Federal Reserve pursues an expansive monetary policy.
It’s also a business under enormous strain. Some “60 to 70% of the cost of raising a hog is tied up in the grains,” Mr. Pope explains. “The major ingredient is corn, and the secondary ingredient is soybean meal.” Over the last several years, “the cost of corn has gone from a base of $2.40 a bushel to today at $7.40 a bushel, nearly triple what it was just a few years ago.” Which means every product that uses corn has risen, too—including everything from “cereal to soft drinks” and more.
What triggered the upswing? In part: ethanol. President George W. Bush “came forward with—what do you call?—the edict that we were going to mandate 36 billion gallons of alternative fuels” by 2022, of which corn-based ethanol is “a substantial part.” Companies that blend ethanol into fuel get a $5 billion annual tax credit, and there’s a tariff to keep foreign producers out of the U.S. market. Now 40% of the corn crop is “directed to ethanol, which equals the amount that’s going into livestock food,” Mr. Pope calculates.
The rapidly depreciating dollar is also sparking inflation, although Mr. Pope says that’s a “hard” topic for him to discuss, trying to be diplomatic. But he doesn’t deny that money is cheap. Investment bankers are throwing cash at the firm—a turnaround from 2008, when money was scarce—even though Mr. Pope doesn’t need it right now.
Now food price inflation is popping up across the country. A pound of sliced bacon costs $4.54 today versus $3.59 two years ago and $3.16 a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ground beef is $2.72, up from $2.27 in 2009 and $1.74 in 2001. And it’s not just Smithfield’s products: “You eat eggs, you drink milk, you get a loaf of bread, and you get a pound of meat,” he drawls. “Those are the four staples of what Americans eat in their diet. All of those are based on grains.”
So what’s the solution? First, Mr. Pope says, get rid of the ethanol subsidies and the tariff. “I am in competition with the government and the oil industry,” he says. “It’s not fair.” Smithfield’s economists estimate corn prices would fall by a dollar a bushel if ethanol blending wasn’t subsidized. “Even the announcement that it is going away would see the price of corn go down, which would translate very quickly into reduced meat prices in the meat case,” he says. Imagine what would happen if the mandate and tariff were eliminated, too.
He also advocates lifting regulatory and tax burdens on business. “I fundamentally don’t understand the logic of corporate income taxes,” he tells me. “If I have a 35% tax, all I do is take that 35% tax and I transfer it into the price of bacon and the price of pork chops.”
Then there’s the challenge of opening up export markets, which Mr. Pope sees as a long-term opportunity for U.S. agriculture. “This is a land-rich country, with rich soils, with the right kind of temperatures and the right kind of cultivation practices,” he says. “We can raise livestock and compete with anybody in the world. That’s how we can help the balance of payments.” (Smithfield has European operations but has had a hard time cracking Asia, and especially China. “It’s easy to invest,” Mr. Pope says, but “it’s hard to make money” there thanks to rampant intellectual-property rights violations and other hazards.)