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Bad Bacon News: Pig Virus Pushes Prices Higher

Bacon eaters, brace yourselves. Prices are rising—up 7 percent since May—thanks to a new virus that has already killed millions of baby pigs. The disease thrives in just the kind of cold weather that was so persistent this winter, so the death toll has been particularly high. And since it takes about six months for a hog to reach what’s politely called “market weight,” the full impact of the illness is still to come.

Scientists believe the virus, porcine epidemic diarrhea, comes from China. It remains unclear how it got into the U.S. and spread to 27 states. The virus doesn’t affect humans or other animals, so there’s that. But estimates of how many pigs have died—from dehydration caused by the diarrhea—range from 2.7 million to 6 million.

The price of bacon had soared before this virus hit. A pound of bacon averaged $5.46 in February, 13 percent more than a year ago. Lots of experts thought this year would bring some relief as corn prices dropped and hogs got fatter. The virus has dashed those expectations.

Before the piglet die-off, fast-food chains had been adding bacon wherever they could: Denny’s (DENN)offers BBQ Bacon Mac ‘n Cheese Bites and Caramel Bacon Stuffed French Toast; Wendy’s (WEN)began selling a Bacon Portabella Melt on Brioche in November. Sixty-four percent of chefs called artisanal bacon a “hot trend” for 2014 in a National Restaurant Association survey (PDF). (The chefs also said smaller portions were a top trend, but that’s another story.) At home, plenty of Americans eat bacon, too: some 44 percent in any two weeks.

There’s no word yet as to whether McDonald’s (MCD)Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter Pounder or any other fast-food bacon goodies will cost more. And so far, the popular Perfect Bacon Bowl, which, yes, involves wrapping bacon around a bowl-shaped mold before cooking, still goes for $10.

Berfield is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York. Follow her on Twitter @susanberfield.

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