Bacon has historically been a big seller, but the pandemic has seen the category explode to near-record numbers again as it continues to experience continuous growth and overall volume in all sectors of retail, foodservice, institutional, private label and co-packing.

Scott Steinman, application specialist for Reiser, based in Canton, Mass., says bacon is becoming more of a main staple in diets, on menus and in requests from consumers. It is almost considered a condiment for all food groups. It is used in many ways for main-course protein, or as additions to other proteins, including bacon-wrapped meats, seasonings for salads and vegetables, pizza toppings, desserts and more.

“An expansion of flavors adds extension lines to the traditional flavors of brown sugar cured with pepper, apple cinnamon, maple, jalapeño, barbecue to the liquor-infused line of bourbons, whiskeys, coffee and chocolate/mochas for additional appeal,” Steinman said. “Then you have the expanded lines of wood-smoked flavors of hickory, hardwoods, mesquite, and fruit woods of apple, cherry, maple, pecan for more flavors.”

Jason Jordan, applications specialist for Fusion Tech Integrated, Roseville, Ill., noted with bacon in such high demand, solid injection equipment that meets the demands of processors and their customers is critical.

“There’s a lot of good equipment on the marketplace, ours included, and I think one of the biggest opportunities for equipment manufacturers is to understand the constraints of bacon-injection systems and make sure we are engineering the appropriate equipment for the jobs,” he said. “In the US, we have green weight legislation, which means the weight of a finished product cannot exceed the weight of the fresh uncured pork bellies, so in most cases, we are injecting 11% to 13%.”

Equipment therefore must have the filter systems, pumps and needle configurations that are able to handle high-concentrated verities.

Nicholas Brown, applications specialist for Precipak, Mundelein, Ill., noted the latest trends in injection are more thorough brine distribution to speed curing prior to thermal processing and tumbling bellies to loosen up the muscles to help brine distribution.

“Our industrial injectors are servo driven which helps make our injectors more versatile,” he said. “The servo drive does not require our injectors to not make full injection strokes like in direct-drive systems, which helps increase throughput, allows the stroke to be tailor made for the product being injected and can be changed by a simple touch screen program.”

Henrik Thrysoe, product manager of margination for Dusseldorf, Germany-based GEA, noted a recent trend is to improve product quality and consistency by avoiding pickle pockets and membrane/fat blowouts for increased final slice yields.

“The trend is to improve or establish existent capacity at highly deduced footprint,” he said. “A typical bacon curing line runs 12 to 15 bellies per minute and we are taking it up to 22 to 25 bellies per minute depending on size and weight range. This means a plant running four lines, now can accomplish the same overall capacity as two GEA bacon curing lines.”

Improving injection

As in many processes, processors are requesting more automation and continuous production without interruptions. This implies less labor, interaction and dependency with less tasks and fewer requirements throughout the process. Equipment manufacturers must provide better solutions to meet these trends as consumption and demands continue to increase.

“Our customers are requesting improved filtration systems to prevent clogged needles and less deviations that can alter downward yields which impact consistency and profits,” Steinman said. “They want the last hour of production to be as consistent as the first hour of production.”

At Reiser, the company offers Fomaco Injectors and Brine Making Systems, various systems to match the throughputs for all bacon manufacturers.

“Our ranges can be anywhere from small-volume to high-volume industry production lines,” Steinman said. “We have the capabilities to integrate technology for automated lines and to minimize line personnel to reduce employee interaction and dependency.”

There are several items that make Fomaco unique: first is its filtration system. The continuous belt filter is the first step of the pre-filtration process to clean the most debris and it eliminates employee personnel and any interaction with cleaning the saddle tank.

“It is completely automatic and continuous, so processors do not have to depend on any personnel to take apart filter screens, inline filters and rotary drums that have to be periodically cleaned or create stoppages in production,” Steinman said. “You also have to pay someone, and they have to do it in a consistent and timely manner to avoid declining yields. This eliminates that job and responsibility and is much more consistent.”

The Fomaco Injector also has a secondary filter – the FM 80 self-cleaning filter – a 500-micron filter basket with rotating compressed scrapers that run automatically and filter out the smaller particles in the brine and eliminate debris prior to the brine going into the needles.

“Next, we use stripper feet blocks that activate the brine upon contact with the product,” Steinman said. “The stripper blocks help control the needle pattern in the product for a consistent yield as it indexes through the injector. The blocks are pneumatic, so they are adjustable for the thickness of the belly and prevent it from coming wedged into the needle head. The needle head is sectional zones or blocks to help guarantee the pressure is always the same in the head from one area to the other.”

Evolving expertise

When it comes to injection systems with bacon, consistency, speed, better control, more automation and less maintenance have all improved dramatically over the years. This has led to newer technologies in the injectors and brine mixing systems.

“Customers have requested improvements in the equipment to help them minimize mistakes in their own process and ownership,” Steinman said. “They want easier equipment to run, clean and to maintain. The servo motors have helped improved the process and minimize inconsistencies with more adjustments to improve speed and to be more precise with yields. The HMI controls have helped dial in all the settings and functions to make changes easily and to be saved based on changing conditions in the process.”

Brown noted that higher viscosity brines are used to inject meat particles into many injected products, but that’s not legal for use in bacon. However, the knowledge gained helps with the “all natural” products because the brines tend to have a higher viscosity due to the increased ingredient percentages versus water in brine.

“These all-natural brines are also considered cleaner ingredients by consumers,” he said. “The logic is to replace the ingredients containing ‘ites’ and ‘ates’ with a cleaner sounding ingredient. An example would be instead of saying sodium nitrite in the ingredient statement, one can replace it with a natural cure ingredient and say, ‘natural flavors’ or ‘celery juice powder.’”

Maintenance matters

Another area of improvement in recent years has been in maintenance on the equipment.

For example, maintenance requirements have been reduced on the Fomaco M3 series due to servo motors, thanks to a central lubrication system in the cabinet that will automatically distribute the grease to the servo motors during cleaning mode.

Precipak’s smaller injectors are direct drive, which makes the machines very simplistic for smaller processors without dedicated maintenance teams to provide frequent service.

“All injectors have a simple needle replacement process if any needles become clogged or break during the process,” Brown said. “This decreases downtime to change. Our injectors are also designed to protect electrical components by utilizing a separate cabinet that is above the brine working level of the machine in case leaks develop.”

Other maintenance needs include single grease fittings on swing arm connectors between motor and needle block head, greased weekly; proper maintaining of brine filters to reduce needle plugging during production; and using cold water for initial rinsing of the machine.

Future opportunities

There are some plants that have injection lines with automated brine mixing systems, automatic injection, automatic combing and handling lines for bellies in a continuous cooking oven. This is done to achieve continuous production, less human contact for food safety as well as labor reduction in the process.

“Robots will become more and more integrated into processes,” Steinman said. “The current pandemic has sped up this process to a degree and will become more and more necessary in the future. Plants have been running with less available staffing and now will be considering more automation to keep lines running.”

Thrysoe believes the future is in automation, with detecting of belly size and count per minute transferred to a big board to monitor real-time performance.

Looking ahead, Brown expects an increase of smaller processors getting into the category because of demand from COVID-19 and the perception of high quality from the artisan boutiques.

“COVID-19 is a bad thing globally, but it did force consumers to experience products from local or smaller processors due to nationally distributed products from larger processors being sold out or unavailable at stores,” he said. “We’ll also see more creative flavor profiles. We’ll always have the staples like smoked or maple bacon, but with bacon becoming less of a center of the plate item and more of a condiment or snacking item, then unique flavors will likely arise.”