Large and small food brands are investing in cooking operations to provide customers with a bacon product can be used in multiple dayparts.

Americans are still hog wild for bacon.

Overall bacon usage in the foodservice channel grew by 102 million lbs. from 2011 to 2013, according to research from Technomic. At the retail level, Chicago-based market research firm IRI reports that general bacon sales rose 11 percent in a 52-week period from 2013 to 2014 to more than $4.3 billion.

“People have always loved bacon but even more so in the past five years, the demand continues to grow,” says Nick Schweitzer, assistant product manager, breakfast meats for Hormel Foods, Austin, Minn., adding that variety has been a focus of that brand’s efforts in recent years. “I think the cultural enthusiasm over the years with the rise of bacon novelty dishes and items has only made it stronger.”

While they are certainly bringing home the bacon, not all consumers are frying it up. The advent of precooked bacon, which usually nets 22 to 24 slices a lb. and is sold in some type of modified atmosphere packaging, has impacted the market for bacon in recent years, with major food brands as well as smaller, regional processors investing in cooking operations to provide their customers with a bacon product that meets their tastes and lifestyles.

Processors agree that consumers are bellying up to bacon in both fully cooked and raw forms. “The precooked bacon category at retail has grown 9 percent during the past four years, while Patrick Cudahy precooked bacon has grown 33.5 percent over the last year,” reports Charles Gitkin, vice president of marketing, innovation and R&D at the Lisle, Ill., office of the The John Morrell Food Group division of Smithfield Foods, which merchandises precooked bacon under both the John Morrell and Patrick Cudahy brand labels.

Precooked bacon allows for multiple-usage opportunities, as part of quick weekday breakfast or as a topping or ingredient in another dish for lunch or dinner.

Jim Thomas, head of sales for Wellshire Farms Inc., Swedesboro, NJ, agrees that different daypart opportunities for bacon have spurred growth. “We get a balanced amount of demand coming from both types of customers. Some want it [precooked bacon] as an add-on ingredient and others use it for their breakfast throughout the week,” he notes.

Precooked bacon has also become an important part of Kraft Foods’ Oscar Mayer brand. Sarah Jones, senior brand manager for the Madison, Wis.-based Oscar Mayer, reports that sales of that brand’s precooked bacon have jumped 17 percent in the last year. “Fully cooked bacon offers convenience to the consumer over raw bacon. Given there’s no messy preparation, it is quick and easy to enjoy 100 percent real bacon any day of the week,” she points out.

In grocery stores, precooked bacon is often sold alongside fresh bacon in the refrigerated case.

But there are many retailers who choose to take advantage of the product’s shelf stability and they opt to merchandise packages of precooked bacon in other store locations – whether near lettuce and tomatoes in the produce section to promote BLT sandwiches or in a separate stand-alone display to attract impulse buys tied to the convenience factor.

Merchandising opps

The outer box has the additional benefit of a billboard effect.

The popular type of packaging for precooked bacon – an outer box with microwaveable precooked bacon strips inside – lends itself to different merchandising opportunities around the store. Likewise, boxed packages of precooked bacon for foodservice can be easily stored for quick preparation and use.

The box format works well for several processors. “For both the consumer and the retailer, the most important purpose the package serves is protection. From a retailer perspective, the outer carton allows for easy shelf placement. It also protects the product to ensure the consumer has whole pieces of bacon,” Jones says.

These days, some boxes of precooked bacon are getting bigger. Oscar Mayer, for example, now offers a larger family-sized package of precooked bacon. The club store Costco sells Kirkland Signature Hormel precooked bacon in a 1-lb. package, with the precooked strips displayed vertically in a front window. “We’ve seen strong demand from our larger package sizes offering in the club channel. The business has continued to grow as consumers find more and more ways to use fully-cooked bacon,” Schweitzer notes.

Whatever its size, an outer box has the additional benefit of a billboard effect. “It provides a way to communicate to the consumer about what they are buying and assures them of quality,” Jones notes.

Indeed, information and graphics on the box communicate a range of product attributes, like a thicker or more premium cut or a natural or organic profile.

For Wellshire Farms, the box is a great platform for messaging. “Fortunately with a carton there is a lot of ‘real estate.’ We have the ability to put all of our claims and our signature sayings onto it since we have the room to. And by using bold colors it makes our box look more eye catching compared to our competitors,” says Jamie Darby, marketing specialist for Wellshire, adding, “It is important to show off our claims and highlight what our competitors might not have.”

Inner packaging materials are also important in ensuring the quality and integrity of the precooked bacon. For precooked bacon that is heated in the microwave, self-venting films and interleaving between rows and strips are common options. Interior pouches are another choice for some processors. “The pouch provides freshness, and the carton protects the product,” explains Gitkin, who says that John Morrell and Patrick Cudahy precooked bacon is packaged in a pouch within a carton.

Jones concurs that quality is the reason for the addition of a pouch. “Fresh taste is key, which is why Oscar Mayer puts our bacon in a re-sealable pouch,” she says.

Wellshire Farms’ precooked bacon is packaged in a plastic pouch with layers of parchment paper in between, with several slices on the paper. “The precooked bacon is still pliable when taken out of the pouch. Once the bacon is placed into the microwave oven and then cooked, it becomes crisp,” explains Claus Christiansen, quality assurance and food safety director.

Portion control also plays into the type of inner packaging. The Boars Head brand of precooked bacon, for example, is sold in an outer box with two individual pouches containing seven slices each.

Because the audience for precooked bacon already has a demonstrated penchant for convenience – whether at home or in a restaurant kitchen – opening features are important as well. Lift-and-peel openings, for example, allow for a neat peel and an effective seal. “An easy-open peel opens easily without scissors or knives and peels cleanly, with complete removal of all film when used,” Thomas declares.

Adds Hormel’s Schweitzer: “We’ve made the commitment to provide them with a re-closeable zip package.”

As interest in sustainable packaging ramps up, some processors may also look at a printed film format for precooked bacon, to eliminate extra materials.

To that end, fully cooked bacon from the Tyson brand is currently sold in a standup resealable pouch that includes bold graphics and banner words like “resealable for freshness” and “ready to serve.” Tyson’s fully cooked bacon is also available in larger family-size pouches.

Lynn Petrak is a contributing editor based in the Chicago area.