bacon biz
There seems to be no limit to consumer demand for bacon and flavor adventures. 

A seasonal upswing in bacon consumption pushed prices for pork bellies to record highs. Wholesale prices for pork bellies soared more than 70 percent since the start of 2017, while retail prices for bacon jumped more than 20 percent. Meanwhile, pork bellies in cold storage are at a 60-year low.

Still, foodservice operators and the meat and poultry industry continue to innovate and meet consumer demand for meat candy.

Godshall’s Quality Meats, a Telford, Pennsylvania-based bacon supplier, specializes in chicken bacon. But most recently, the company began making wood-smoked turkey bacon. It wasn’t long before Godshall’s All Natural Fully Cooked Turkey Bacon became available to grocers nationwide. COO Ron Godshall explained that the company invested in a recipe for turkey bacon and decided to offer the natural product at the same price-point of other Godshall’s bacon products.

“We made a commitment and the strategic purchases to back it up,” Godshall explained. “That scale was one of the reasons we are able to make our Fully Cooked Turkey Bacon all natural and hold the cost. Innovation is in our blood, as is a refusal to accept prevailing thought when we know we can do better.

“Decades ago, we didn’t accept that turkey bacon was an inferior tasting product, and developed a recipe that customers tell us is the turkey bacon that pork bacon consumers love,” he added. “Here, we decided not to follow the orthodoxy of splitting off an all-natural brand at a much higher price point.”

Foodservice fixture

In his blog, “No End to the Bacon Trend” Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, said there seems to be no limit to consumer demand for bacon and flavor adventures. And data from market research firm Nielsen and Red Arrow show that apple cinnamon and black pepper were the highest-selling flavors of uncured bacon in 2015 at $3.91 million and $3.67 million in sales, respectively. Meanwhile, jalapeño was a popular flavor in the natural bacon category with approximately $872.2 million in sales in 2015.

Shake Shack tapped into this demand in May 2016, when the purveyor of premium burgers offered a Bacon CheddarShack burger as a limited-time offer. This year, the chain is offering a bacon-themed menu, and the lineup includes a Bacon Double Cheeseburger, a Bacon Cheeseburger and Bacon Cheese Fries. Niman Ranch is supplying the bacon.

California-based Slater’s 50/50 has gone all-in with a blend of ground beef and bacon for its burgers. Scott Slater, founder of Slater’s 50/50, created the blended bacon burger patty using 50 percent ground bacon and 50 percent Holstein ground beef. The company’s supplier is Brandt Beef – The True Natural, which is a family owned beef producer in Southern California.

Arby’s returned to its menu, for a limited time, the Smokehouse Pork Belly Sandwich. The premium sandwich, known for its “bigger, better bacon,” immediately became one of the restaurant’s most popular offerings and it sold out in locations across the country in a matter of weeks, according to Arby’s Restaurant Group.

The sandwich features two strips of pork belly topped with smoked cheddar cheese, fried onions, barbecue sauce and mayonnaise on a toasted roll. The pork belly is hickory smoked for hours and then seared.

“Our guests love pork belly,” said Rob Lynch, CMO and brand president of Arby’s Restaurant Group. “When we launched it last year, we weren’t sure how well it would do because no one in our industry had done a slow-smoked pork belly sandwich before. Well, the response was remarkable, significantly exceeding our wildest expectations. So, we worked hard to bring it back as soon as possible, and here it is. Pork belly is just another example of our unique approach to food, which is to offer innovation that our guests can only find at Arby’s. We are really proud of this meat.”

Also returning to the Arby’s menu is the Smoke Mountain Sandwich featuring smoked pork belly, smoked brisket and smoked ham combined and topped with crispy onions, smoked cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce on a specialty roll.

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Higher prices for pork bellies haven't quenched consumer demand for 'meat candy.'

'Brexit' Bacon Virus?

In May, reports emerged in the British press about a “Brexit” virus, which turned out to be a new strain of hepatitis E linked to hog farms in France, Holland, Germany and Denmark. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) currently is sounding the alarm about the growing threat of hepatitis E in the EU.

“Even if it is not as widespread as other foodborne diseases, hepatitis E is a growing concern in the EU,” said Rosina Girones, chair of EFSA’s working group on hepatitis E. “In the past, people thought the main source of infection was drinking contaminated water while travelling outside the EU. But now we know the main source of transmission of the disease in Europe is food.”

Domestic pigs are the main carriers of hepatitis E in the EU, EFSA reported, and wild boars can also carry the virus, although wild boar meat consumption is very low.

According to EFSA, 21,000 cases of hepatitis E infections have been reported in humans over the last 10 years, with an overall 10-fold increase in during this period. And cases of hepatitis E have surged in Britain. According to provisional data from January–March 2017, Public Health England received 218 reports of severe hepatitis E infections. In 2016, the agency had 1,244 cases.

The National Pig Association in the UK said in a statement that Public Health England research found that a subgroup of hepatitis E causing most of the human infections in the United Kingdom is not the same as a subgroup found in UK pigs.

“The NPA agrees with the conclusion of the researchers that if people in this country have contracted hepatitis E virus from eating pork, it is likely to have come from imported pork, rather than British pork,” NPA said, adding that more research and surveillance is needed to determine “the true cause of the rise in hepatitis E cases in the UK.”

Consumers are advised to cook meat products thoroughly, avoid eating raw or undercooked shellfish and meat, and practice consistent, thorough handwashing before preparing, serving and eating food.

Hepatitis E is an illness of the liver caused by a virus that can infect people and animals. In rare cases, it can be fatal, especially in pregnant women. The virus can result in chronic inflammation of the liver in individuals with weakened immune systems.

Symptoms include yellowing of the skin and eyes, or jaundice; darkening of the urine and pale stools. Other symptoms can sometimes include fatigue, abdominal pain, fever and nausea.