This past year, the US meat case has experienced turbulent times due to higher product costs and tightening supplies, among other obstacles. However, earlier this year, C. Larry Pope, Smithfield Foods president and CEO, told analysts despite the fact that the US retail bacon category volume was down 3.4 percent, Smithfield’s bacon sales were up 10.8 percent. “[Category] pricing is up 8.4 percent. Ours is up 23.1 percent,” he also boasted.

What gives? For one thing, while some meat companies are opting to ride out the economic storm waiting for calmer waters before getting actively involved again in new product development, Smithfield Packing Co. Inc. rolled up its sleeves and launched a new bacon product last fall with revolutionary bacon packaging features that are helping it and parent company Smithfield Foods boost their bottom lines.

What led to its development is Smithfield consumer research indicating that although consumers love bacon, they were frustrated by its packaging. So, the company responded by developing a product with new packaging features consumers wanted.

Smithfield Packing’s PouchPack Bacon began appearing on shelves in November, says Chad Baker, senior vice president, retail and foodservice brands, Smithfield Packing Co. Inc. PouchPack Bacon comes in a 12-oz. package made by WinPak that includes two individual break-away, 6-oz. packages. Two side-by-side perforated pouches containing six slices of bacon are contained in each pouch and sealed with EZ peel film allowing one of the pouches to be used for another dining occasion.

“You don't buy 16 oz. of bacon anymore,” Pope told analysts earlier this year while discussing this new product. “You buy 12 oz. of bacon. And then we split it into two, 6-oz.packages. You've only got essentially one-third of the package, and you don't even affect the shelf-life of the other part of the package. You lower the price point and get better margins, better convenience and better packaging.”

Of course, this product isn’t the only retail bacon innovation from this past year. Several weeks ago, Jennie-O Turkey Store, a Hormel Foods Corp. business, added its “new and improved” turkey bacon. The product features improved taste and texture, according to the company, plus improved packaging that includes a zipper seal. Jennie-O also reduced the sodium content of its turkey bacon from 340 mg per serving to 130 mg. When compared to traditional pork bacon, the turkey product has 60 percent less sodium and 60 percent less fat, the company claims.

In May, Oscar Mayer, a major Kraft brand, announced its plan to roll out one of the largest advertising campaigns in its brand's history to support the launch of Oscar Mayer Selects. This line was billed as the first nationally available complete line of meats, which includes bacon, which contains no artificial preservatives.

John Morrell, another Smithfield Foods brand, added lower-sodium bacon to its product portfolio in February. The company said it’s using an all-natural salt replacement to reduce sodium in the bacon without diminishing flavor. Chuck Gitkin, vice president of marketing, innovation and R&D for the John Morrell Food Group, said his company’s new lower-sodium bacon offers all the hearty flavor of the brand’s regular bacon, but with 50 percent less sodium — and 20 percent lower than its leading competitors’ lower-sodium bacon products.

Last November, HoneyBaked launched a new Spiced Bacon ($5.99 for 24 oz.) featuring the company’s brand of spice rub on the bacon that is smoked over hardwood chips.

Lynn Dornblaser, new products guru for market researcher Mintel, shared with me several more bacon innovations the company uncovered during the year. Paula Deen Southern Dishes Loaded Baked Potato Sauce with Red Potatoes includes bacon to season the red potatoes. Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale is brewed with natural bacon flavor among other innovative ingredients.

Sir Francis Bacon Toffee Bar in Dark Chocolate also includes this tasty protein as an ingredient. Snyder's of Hanover Bacon Cheddar Pretzel Pieces are made with flavored sourdough that includes bacon. And a product named Skillet Original Cured Bacon Spread can be eaten with a spoon, on burgers, sandwiches, mashers and scramblers. The USDA-certified product retails in a 7-oz. pack. Bacon isn’t just for humans. Variety Pet Foods Homestyle Buffet Assorted Recipes are oven-baked pet treats and one offering includes bacon.

Looking forward, experts expect food prices will continue rising, but one insider does not anticipate this will dramatically change the US consumers’ love or consumption of bacon. “Consumers may adjust their purchase habits due to pricing issues, but we don’t believe they will discontinue their love affair with bacon,” says Patrick Fleming, director of retail marketing for the National Pork Board.

Fleming is right, particularly as long as innovators like Smithfield Packing keep delivering the goods by satisfying consumer demand for better tasting and packaged products. As long as forward-thinking processors give consumers what they want in product features, the retail bacon category will continue growing — regardless of the economy.

(For more information on Smithfield’s PouchPack Bacon, read “Taste Without Waste” in the upcoming September issue of Meat&Poultry magazine.)