Bacon is the most popular pork product on the market. According to the National Pork Board, the United States produces more than 2 billion pounds of bacon annually. Analysts predict that bacon sales will grow by 15 percent from 2002 to 2007.

Those numbers also illustrate why bacon was a featured research segment in the Benchmarking Value in the Pork Supply Chain study.

Researchers at Texas A&M University conducted the bacon research in three stages, looking at belly thickness and its effect on: processing, slicing and consumer-panel evaluation.

"Bacon has become a large portion of the pork carcass’ value, and it’s a high visibility item with consumers," says Davey Griffin, meat scientist and lead researcher of the bacon study.

He notes that processors are able to correct some quality deficiencies, such as color, during curing. But other quality issues, such as thin bellies caused by extremely lean carcasses, remain challenges. 

Let’s take a look.

  • Processing. At a large commerical bacon processing company, researchers sorted through 1,200 pounds of bellies and divided them into three groups of 96 each, according to thickness:
    – Thin (0.86 inches)
    – Average (1.02 inches)
    – Thick (1.21 inches)

    After skinning the bellies, all were pumped, chilled, cooked/smoked, chilled, pressed and sliced, using a commercial plant’s normal process.

    The thin bellies had higher yield losses during skinning than the thick bellies. Thin bellies also had higher cook shrink and lower overall final yield percentages when compared with thicker bellies. On the flip side, thick, fat bellies had better processing yields than thin bellies.

  • Slicing. The same trends appeared during slicing where thicker bellies had higher yields of No. 1 slices (the highest quality slices.) The thin bellies were the lowest yielding of the three groups. They also produced the highest yields of No. 2 slices. (No. 2 slices are used for such things as bacon bits or are sold at a reduced price under a second label for a company.)

    Few differences were found in losses due to lean meat differences, especially between the average and thick groups, but the thin-belly group had the highest losses. Note that the little bit of extra fat in the thick-belly group can cause yield losses, especially when grid yields are based on lean percentages. Slicing yields are presented in the table.

    The thin bellies also had a higher percentage yield loss due to high percentage of ends and shattered pieces – both of which reduce the belly’s overall value.

  • Consumer Satisfaction. The study’s final portion involved consumer-panel responses for visual and taste evaluations of bacon.

    Panelists preferred the visual characteristics of bacon from the thin bellies. "Consumers buy with their eyes, and it’s easy to see that bacon from thicker bellies has more fat," notes Griffin. "The consumers liked the fact that the thin bellies were leaner."

    However, when it came to taste, bacon from the thin bellies didn’t rank as well. The panelists still didn’t like the fat amounts on the thicker bacon slices, but they liked the saltiness/flavor best. The panelists also said bacon from the thin bellies didn’t get as crisp as they would have liked.

    For overall taste and acceptability, bacon from the average bellies came out ahead: it received a 93 percent acceptability rating, while thin bellies scored 80 percent, and thick bellies only 74 percent.

    When evaluating the visual lean-to-fat ratio and pink color characteristics, the thin and average groups won out over the thick bellies because the slices appeared to have more lean meat.

    Panelists also said they would likely purchase bacon from the thin- and average-belly groups. Nearly 62 percent of the panelists said they would not purchase bacon from the thick-belly group.

  • What does this all mean? "We need to aim for bellies that are slightly more than 1-inch thick," says Griffin. "The middle group seems to work for everyone."

    In the industry’s push toward lean, bellies have trended too thin. That bacon may appeal to consumers visually, but it doesn’t translate to palatability. Thin bellies also cause processing problems. "Yield losses from slicing and cook shrink all calculate to losses for the industry," he notes.

    Processors have found avenues to move thin bellies into secondary bacon products, but Griffin believes the industry is at a point where it doesn’t need any more. .

    "As an industry, we need to work toward bellies of average thickness to continue the value that the belly supplies to the whole carcass," says Griffin.

    This presents a challenge for producers. "Most of today’s packer yield grids are weighted to pay producers on carcass leanness versus weight," he notes. "If we continue to get animals leaner, it will negatively affect the bellies." With bacon’s popularity, if processors continue to have problems with bellies, it will impact product value throughout the pork chain—including what you are paid for your hogs.