Fantasy football is extremely popular pastime. It is an interactive competition in which people manage professional football players versus one another as general managers of a pseudo-football team. The players that an individual is able to manage are professional football players in the National Football League. These pseudo-players can be traded or drafted, and team rosters can be changed, These imaginary teams then compete on fantasy football web sites where team and player stats are used to create an outcome. The popularity of football and the availability of internet access has boosted the popularity of this pastime. Many of those who regularly play, take this imaginary sport as seriously as other people take actual sports competitions. But in the end, everyone knows it is only make believe. There have been some fantasy food shortages taking place lately; the difference here, however, is that people think they are real.
Remember, last fall, the world bacon shortage that had bacon lovers scrambling to stock up on pork bellies before they were all gone? Have you noticed a shortage of bacon at your store? No, because there was no shortage. The whole thing was a hoax, created by a British pork producer web site to stimulate demand for British bacon. The problem is the British and US media didn’t get the memo, and they thought it was real. Porkocalypse, as it came to be called, flashed around the world at the speed of cyberspace, thanks to social media channels like Facebook and Twitter.
Then last December, as Congress was facing a deadline to agree on a solution to keep the US from diving off the fiscal cliff, media stories began to surface about $8 milk. They predicted that, if Congress did not act to amend or extend dairy programs, milk prices would soar to $8 a gallon on January 1. The Congressional switchboard melted down as lawmakers were besieged with calls from voters demanding they do something about the price of milk. Suddenly, Congressmen who did not even know there was such a thing as a Farm Bill were calling for an extension. Sure enough Congress acted, and milk prices stayed stable.
The latest shortage scare came last week as the Super Bowl hype moved into high gear. A release from the chicken industry predicted a shortage of chicken wings during the Super Bowl. The media went ballistic, and consumers started stocking up. Meanwhile, restaurants that specialize in wings and who do a booming business on Super Bowl Sunday, publicly predicted they would run out while quietly raising their prices. There was no shortage on Sunday because the shortage story was all a fantasy. According to Matt Erickson, economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, “We’re seeing chicken production about 1 percent down from last year. However, when you look at supplies for chicken wings, we’ve actually seen a 68 percent increase from this time last year. So, the wing supply, it’s there.”
In all three cases the media and public opinion were deliberately manipulated to advance an agenda by an industry or organization. The bacon shortage was an attempt by British pork producers, facing strict environmental regulations at home and imports of cheap bacon from the EU, to stimulate public sympathy for British pork producers and gain more shelf space by British retailers.
The US dairy industry, after crafting policy reform that would help stabilize the volatile milk market, watched as the Farm Bill was thrown under the bus of political expediency in a lame duck Congress. While most farm groups threw temper tantrums and said they would hold their breath until they got a Farm Bill, dairy groups quietly played the consumer scare card. They mentioned to a few media outlets that, without a Farm Bill, milk would go up to $8. With the help of social media, this story went viral; and, soon, panicking mothers were burning up the lines to Capitol Hill.
The January USDA report that showed a 1% decline in chicken production gave the poultry industry the perfect chance to take a shot at their archenemy the ethanol industry. They released a report predicting the wing shortage and blaming the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) for the shortage of wings. A more ludicrous and unsubstantiated correlation you will never find.
While this kind of thing is not new, the success of this tactic in recent months is likely to breed more manufactured shortages. Could be we looking at an egg shortage at Easter, a hot dog shortage as the baseball season opens, or a hamburger shortage for the 4th of July? These fantasy food scares erode public confidence in our food supply. What is ironic is that most Americans have never experienced a real food shortage. The only time they see empty store shelves is the night before a predicted winter storm and then only the bread, milk, and beer shelves are cleaned out.
Manufacturers will sometimes create a shortage to increase the demand for their product; but, in the food sector, in most cases shortages have to be works of fantasy and creative PR. That is because in the US, our agriculture system is capable of delivering a stable food supply despite drought, floods, frost, and Congress. Consumers need to have a little more confidence in farmers and a little less confidence in both the news and social media.