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In an interview with Newsweek, former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin pointed to Slim Jims -- the iconic beef jerky snack sold in convenience stores everywhere -- as an example of how inflation poses a problem for the American economy.
The article explained that Palin has "become conversant on the subject of quantitative easing" -- a Federal Reserve bond-buying plan. The effort was designed to bolster a weak economy, but critics say it risks encouraging inflation. (We rated her on a related statement last November.)
In the July 10, 2011 Newsweek interview, Palin illustrated the issue with an anecdote about her husband: "I was ticked off at Todd yesterday," she said. "He walks into a gas station as we’re driving over from Minnesota. He buys a Slim Jim—we’re always eating that jerky stuff—for $2.69. I said, 'Todd, those used to be 99 cents, just recently!' And he says, 'Man, the dollar’s worth nothing anymore.' A jug of milk and a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs—every time I walk into that grocery store, a couple of pennies more."
A reader asked us to look into whether Slim Jims have, in fact, been swept up in a huge inflationary spiral recently.
We’ll start by noting that Palin used an anecdote to draw broader conclusions. That’s not necessarily a no-no, but it should be taken with a grain of salt. (Or, perhaps, 430 mg of salt, the amount of sodium in a 0.97-ounce original Slim Jim.) Even if Palin’s anecdote is true, it may not support her larger points about food inflation and the dangers thereof.
So, let’s look at some of the broader trends in food inflation.
The term Palin used -- "just recently" -- is vague, but we thought the past year would be a reasonable yardstick. So we looked at federal inflation data for the period May 2010 to May 2011. For these figures, we turned to the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Workers, or CPI-U-- the most commonly used measurement for inflation.
At the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website, you can dig out inflation figures for a wide range of consumer products. There’s no category for Slim Jims, of course, but we did find at least two relevant categories. Beef prices have risen 10.2 percent during the past year, and snack prices have risen 2.8 percent over the same period. (Okay, wise guys: Slim Jims also include other ingredients -- here’s an independent assessment -- but we won’t go there.)
For comparison’s sake, the inflation rate for all consumer products studied was 3.5 percent over the same period, and slightly less -- 3.4 percent -- for food products alone. So beef prices have indeed risen quite a bit faster than inflation generally, while snack prices have risen more slowly than overall inflation.
Gary Burtless, an economist at the centrist-to-liberal Brookings Institution, said that inflation has been increasing somewhat in the food sector (as well as in the energy sector), but he added that those increases came after sharp declines during the last recession and that a broad range of consumer products have not increased at similar rates.
"Basic commodity prices have risen sharply," Burtless said, "in no small part because (a) they are determined in a world market, not solely by what is going on in the USA; (b) the world market for basic commodities dramatically improved after early 2009, when it became clear that government actions to combat the recession and fix the financial meltdown were going to be successful and all of Asia except Japan enjoyed a big economic rebound; and (c) because those basic commodity prices were rebounding from sharp declines that occurred because of the steep world recession in 2008-2009."
But even a 10.2 percent increase in beef prices -- a major ingredient of Slim Jims, even if not the only one -- does not explain a price rise of 169 percent, which is what Palin’s comparison would suggest.
Still, national statistics alone can’t settle this question. So we went directly to ConAgra, the food giant that makes Slim Jims.
Teresa Paulsen, a ConAgra spokeswoman, said that "we admire Mr. Palin’s taste and appreciate his support," but added that "we haven’t raised the price significantly on any Slim Jim products."
She also offered a possible explanation for the confusion. "Our iconic Slim Jim Giant Sticks are priced around $1.30," Paulsen said. "Mr. Palin might have been reaching for one of our Slim Jim Monster Sticks, which offers double the meat for $2.30, or our Slim Jim Kippered Beef Steak, which typically sells for around $2.65."
Finally, Paulsen said, "If the Palins want to try something that brings a little extra heat, we’d invite them to try our new Slim Jim Dare sticks. We’d love to know what a seasoned Slim Jim connoisseur thinks."
We’ll note that it’s also possible that Todd Palin happened to buy his jerky fix at a store that disregarded ConAgra’s suggested retail price. Paulsen said that the company’s suggested price is just that -- a suggestion -- and that retailers ultimately determine how much they charge.
So where does this leave us? Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Palins are correct and they recently paid two and a half times more for a Slim Jim than they used to. If that’s the case, it wasn’t because ConAgra raised the suggested price. It could have been because they bought from a particularly expensive retailer, or they could have been choosing a different and more expensive flavor of Slim Jim without realizing it.
Still, even if Todd Palin paid more for his snack food fix, it doesn’t support Sarah Palin’s argument that food prices are skyrocketing. Food prices -- an always-volatile sector -- are indeed going up, and that may or may not be a worry for the longer term. However, food prices are not rising by anything approaching 169 percent. Her anecdote offers spice, but not a lot of meat. We rate it False.
Newsweek, "Palin Plots Her Next Move," July 10, 2011
Bureau of Labor Statistics, main search page for the Consumer Price Index, accessed July 2011
ConAgra, Slim Jim product information, accessed July, 2011
Wired, "What's Inside a Slim Jim?" Aug 24, 2009
Livestrong.com, "Slim Jim Beef Jerky Nutrition," accessed July 11, 2011
PolitiFact, "Who's right on food inflation: Sarah Palin or the Wall Street Journal?" Nov. 10, 2010
E-mail interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, July 11, 2011
E-mail interview with Teresa Paulsen, spokeswoman for ConAgra, July 11, 2011
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