Refining. For many, that may be a term used in the petroleum industry to create fuels that are better and more valuable than the raw ingredient...namely oil. At Cunningham Meats in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the bacon processing operation has undergone a continuous refining program.
“We always made pretty darn good bacon since we opened in 1956,” explains owner Scott Cunningham. "But we kept looking for ways to improve our product to bring it to the level where it met the changing expectations of our customers.”
Cunningham's began curing and smoking meats for local farmers and had a strong and growing business. They then embarked on a never-ending search for ways to make the product better and produce it more efficiently.
“We went through many changes,” he recalls. “At first our self-built smokehouse did the job for us, but as demand for our processing services grew and we came under inspection years later, we began selling our own bacon and realized that there were many new technologies out there that we could take advantage of for a small-scale family business like ours.”
Cunningham’s bacon uses a dry rub and curing process that involves giving the bellies a wet bath and then hanging them in the smokehouse. It was once a seven-day process.
In 1991, the family turned to tumblers that enabled the cure to evenly disperse throughout the belly and began using a pressurized processing oven that enabled them to reduce the production time from seven days to 24 hours. Their 1,000-lb. Alkar smoking system uses a cold smoke program that requires 15 hours and has a microprocessor that allows tracking of the smoking process and can generate the required HACCP records.
Scott said previous processing change greatly improved yield, but decreased the flavor and shelf life. He returned to the original dry rub and 15-hour cold smoking process.
“We normally put 54 pork bellies into the smoker at a time,” Scott explains. “This increase in capabilities helped reduce both labor and utility costs. We also made a decision to go with a vacuum packaging system to give our product a better presentation both at retail and for our wholesale and private label customers.”
The finished product “sells itself” he believes. The 23-employee business has a solid reputation among its bacon customers. Those who try it comment on the fact that theirs is “bacon as it’s supposed to be.”
Cunningham Meats offers a maple and sugar hickory smoked bacon and has expanded to include a pepper and a Sicilian version that's made with rubbed red pepper and paprika. Their bacon production has doubled to about 600 lbs. a week.
They've invested in a Treif slicing system that is much less labor-intensive, utilizing a conveyor system and a belt that pulls the bacon from the blade at a slicing rate of 30 seconds per belly. Cunningham's markets their bacon in thick and regular (medium) slices and also finds a ready market for their bacon ends. They also feature whole bacon slabs.
“I feel we have to see an efficiency ahead before we make a change, but nothing that lessens the flavor or value of our bacon product,” he adds.