Bacon cheeseburgers. Bacon chicken sandwiches. BLT salads. Bacon ice cream bars.
Wait, what? Bacon and ice cream?
Yes, even dessert makers have found a use for bacon.
For more than a decade, bacon has become increasingly more popular on restaurant menus and in home kitchens.
“Bacon always gives a unique flavor to anything,” says John Green, director of strategic marketing for the National Pork Board. “It’s one of the fastest- growing categories in all of food service.”
Since 2000, Green says bacon has grown steadily in popularity among consumers and the food service industry.
“You have seen a significant and steady growth in terms of the value to the cutout,” he says. “Today, it makes up an ever larger percentage of the cutout value.”
With bacon bringing a lot of bang to the pork-cutout buck, concerns over supply and quality are always there, Green says.
When pork-belly supplies tighten, he says bacon prices will go up accordingly because demand rarely wavers.
“For some people, it’s an indulgence for them,” Green says.
Quality concerns have surfaced over the past few years as some packers reported some bellies were too soft on the carcass. Researchers found feeding large amounts of dry distillers grains (DDG) were contributing to the problem.
A study by the North Central Coordinating Committee on Swine Nutrition found reducing the amount of distillers fed had a significant effect on belly firmness.
“What we found is that the best way to reduce the soft belly was to feed a maximum of 20 percent distillers all the way from weaning to market,” says Marcia Shannon, Extension swine specialist at the University of Missouri.
“You could feed 40 percent distillers, but you would need to drop that to 20 percent by the time pigs are two weeks away from being marketed.”
Shannon says the optimal time would be to back off the distillers percentage 30 days before marketing. That should give the belly time to recover and for fat to regain its firmness, she adds.
The firmer the pork belly, Shannon says the more bacon can be sliced from it. Consumers prefer their bacon to be firm and not soft, she adds.
“You can just get more yield out of the belly if it’s firm and not soft.”
Shannon says reducing the amount of distillers fed will result in a few more days in the finisher. But, a better carcass should make it worth the wait, she adds.
“If you back off and go to more of a corn diet, you will want to add a little extra fat to the diet.
“We really didn’t see any impact on performance by feeding 40 percent distillers, but there was a measurable impact on the carcass because distillers affect all the fat in the carcass and not just the belly.”
Green says soft bellies are a concern for the industry, but because of research, the industry was able to react quickly.
“I think our industry did a good job of recognizing that there was a concern. We never really heard from our customers that bacon quality had slipped, and there were no lost sales.
“Our packers and processors know what it takes to put a good piece of bacon on the plate.”
Despite the popularity of bacon, Green expects more bacon to find its way into the belly of the consumer.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it, and it’s going to continue to grow,” he says.