Commodity prices are whey out there

A worker flips cheese curd to drain the whey out of cheese molds.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: We've brought you I don't know how many stories over the past couple of months about commodities prices -- everything from oil to rice to uranium -- and how everything is getting more expensive.

Those rising prices have put the squeeze on consumers all over the world. They've also given investors a ton of buying opportunities.

But as Marketplace's Steve Henn reports not all commodities are as good as gold.


Steve Henn: To get started, we are going have bit of a quiz -- don't worry, it's easy.

Henn: OK, so, Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and...?

Woman: Whey?

Henn: What is whey?

Woman: It's some kind of oatmeal right? Or is it like wheat? I don't know.

Well, it's not wheat; it's what's left over after you to turn milk into cheese.

Phil Plourd follows the market for this stuff at Blimling Associates.

Phil Plourd: Not too many years ago, it was basically treated as a waste product. It was spread on fields.

But whey is high in protein, low in fat and today, it's found in all sorts of processed foods, from nacho chips to PowerBars to baby formula. It's also a key ingredient in animal feed, especially for pigs.

In 2007 alone, the price of whey almost quadrupled.

Plourd: Like any good commodities story these days, China plays a role in this marketplace. There are a lot of little pigs in China.

And those piggies needed their protein. Suddenly, last year what had been a waste product was being exported by the boatload. As prices rose speculators scrambled for a slice, turning whey into a $2 billion business.

Bob Yonkers is the chief economist at the International Dairy Foods Association. He says the sudden price rise sowed the seed of the market's collapse.

Bob Yonkers: When prices get too high, people start looking for substitute protein sources and I think that's exactly what happened.

Today the price of whey has fallen more than 60 percent and like a Little Miss Muffet scared by a spider, that's frightened investors away. At least for now.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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