'Chicken feed' loses meaning

A farmer collects eggs at a chicken farm. With the cost of chicken feed rising, fewer birds may mean higher prices in coming months.

We may just need to find a different adjective to describe the least expensive thing money can buy after Tyson Foods announced this morning that chicken feed no longer costs, well, chicken feed.           

The largest meatpacker in the U.S. reported a 54 percent decline in fourth-quarter profits and blamed it largely on the high cost of grain, the central ingredient in a chicken’s diet. The result will be a reduction in the number of chickens raised by the company in 2012 and a subsequent increase in price.

On its face, this news seems like nothing to crow at (sorry, had to use it). I mean, we Americans spend a fraction of our income on food compared with the vast majority of the world’s population, so who cares if the chicken breasts you’re buying for dinner cost an extra buck or so? Many won’t even register the difference on the checkout line.

But Tyson’s announcement is a glimpse at the tip of an economic iceberg. Weather patterns have become less predictable, as evidenced not just in the record-setting high temperatures that broiled the U.S. this past summer, but also in severe drought conditions and subsequent out-of-control fires in the world’s other wheat-growing superpower, Russia, this past growing season. This has prompted nations to scramble to stockpile the dietary staples necessary to feed booming populations.

Regardless of the cause, higher grain prices are going to inflate your grocery bill no matter which animal-based protein you put on the dinner table, and the sad reality is that we may just need to find a new expression to replace “chicken feed” when we’re trying to describe things so cheap we scatter them in barnyards.

About the author

Joel Patterson is the Associate Producer of Marketplace Money.

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