“Everything is better with bacon” is a statement that resonates with pork producers, culinary experts and consumers. Bacon is the term for the cured belly of a hog carcass. Most bacon sold in the United States is referred to as “streaky” bacon which is long, narrow slices cut crosswise from the hog belly that contain veins of meat within the fat. Several steps are involved in producing bacon. Each pork belly must be skinned and any ragged edges trimmed. The product is then cured which usually involves injection of a brine containing ingredients that make bacon taste like bacon and not just pork. The next step is thermal processing and usually includes traditional smoking. Bacon receives its smoke flavor either from natural smoke obtained by smoldering wood chips or by spraying with a liquid smoke extract.
Despite consumer trends in healthier eating and more economical food selections, bacon is a prevalent meat choice and is also a popular accent to many other foods. Once primarily a breakfast staple, bacon has moved into other eating arenas. Bacon is frequently found in salads, soups, sandwiches and as a compliment to burgers and pizza. Novel use of bacon is also showing up in ice cream, cakes, cookies and even donuts. This trend is seen both in meals eaten at home and in meals eaten away from home.
Bacon has become a popular addition to fast-food menus. These incidental sales are referred to as a knock-on effect. Ron Plain, an agricultural economist at University of Missouri said, “Every time bacon is put on a fast-food sandwich, it is incremental growth in sales. A knock-on effect can follow. Most people find the taste of bacon on fast-food sandwiches to be appealing and that may influence their purchasing decisions at the grocery stores.”
Mintel, a large, consumer market research firm, recently conducted surveys on consumer perceptions, purchasing practices and consumption of red meat. Mintel reported bacon has wide consumer acceptance and is the second most commonly purchased red meat with 69 percent of households reporting in the surveys they purchase bacon. Thirty eight percent of survey respondents reported consuming bacon one to three times per month, 20 percent reported once a week consumption and 19 percent reported eating bacon three or more times a week. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics bacon prices in the Midwest averaged $4.99 per pound in October which is an increase of 6.4 percent over a year ago.
As with many other products, consumers are looking for specialized bacon products. Lower sodium, less-fat and natural are attributes desired by consumers. To be labeled as natural, nitrites and nitrates may not be directly added to bacon as curing agents. Flavorings like mesquite, maple and pepper are also popular. Convenience is a high priority and more consumers and food service providers are selecting precooked bacon.
As the demand for bacon remains strong, opportunities exist in product development to cater to the diverse preferences of consumers. The Michigan State University Product Center can assist livestock producers or food processors with market research and product development. Innovation counselors are located in Michigan State University Extension offices across the state. Additional services such as business planning, product testing and accessing the supply chain are also available to Michigan residents.