Despite the latest bacon mania among foodies and fans, consumers still typically belly up to bacon in its original and most popular form. In that basic form of a slice – whether raw or precooked and bound for retail or foodservice – bacon packaging reflects the demands and needs of the current marketplace.

With demand for bacon remaining strong, bacon processors, including those producing major brands such as Oscar Mayer, Tyson, Hormel, Smithfield and Farmland Foods, among others, are continually looking for ways to meet demand in an efficient way.

“Typically, the bacon industry is interested in high-volume, high-speed packaging machinery,” says Bob Koch, director of sales for the food division of Kansas City, Mo.-based Multivac Inc. Multivac offers a full range of packaging systems to bacon processors, including shrink films for vacuum packaging and equipment like thermoformers and chamber machines.

Pete Bruehl, market manager for processed meats and bacon for Oshkosh, Wis.-based supplier Curwood Inc. (a subsidiary of Bemis Company Inc.), also says bacon production has picked up speed. According to Bruehl, Curwood has upgraded its films, as well as its systems, for better output, allowing processors to handle up to 100 packages a minute using one of its bacon packaging machines. The savings in time, as well as labor, are especially crucial in this economic climate, he notes.

Easy does it

In addition to volume and speed, convenience is still a drumbeat that affects bacon packaging, which has often been viewed by consumers as difficult to open and store. Koch notes that convenienceoriented options and recloseability options for bacon packaging have continued to expand in recent years.

More recently, interest in easy-toopen, simple-to-use packaging that also helps extend product shelf-life led to the development of a tray-andlid system for bacon, which has been used by the Oscar Mayer brand for its center-cut bacon product. “That was very unique in the industry because it has an easy-to-peel lidding film on it and a high-clarity tray to show off the bacon. It’s portable, stackable and retails well, and it sets the product apart to take that leap for a higher grade center cut,” observes Bruehl.

At Curwood, convenience is on the mind of those who develop packaging solutions for bacon products. “Bacon is typically a mess to deal with, so any easy-open type system or system that either carries the bacon or allows consumers to get into the package without touching it is a convenience,” says Bruehl, adding that restaurant operators are also looking for convenient features, so kitchen employees can easily, quickly and safely access the product.

One example of Curwood’s focus on convenience is its EZ Peel opening technology. That system, used below the hermetic seal, allows a user to open and reclose the package easily and with less spoilage and waste. According to Bruehl, the EZ Peel system has also been successful with precooked bacon, which traditionally has been sold in more rigid packaging. “We’ve shown customers that you can take that out and print top and bottom film in a flexible package,” he says.

Convenience means different things to different audiences, of course. For consumers and restaurant operators, convenience typically translates to easy-open features. For processors, convenience often refers to the ease of production, reduction in labor and, as bacon product lines become more diverse, improved flexibility.

According to Multivac’s Koch, processor demands for convenience led to the development of its architecture control systems. “These systems provide complete flexibility along the processing/slicing and packaging line,” he notes.

Integration is tied into convenience for the processor, too. “Compatibility with faster and more efficient slicing
technology is also an important factor in packaging solutions we provide to bacon processors,” Koch adds.

At stainless-steel packaging equipment manufacturer Packaging Progressions Inc. (Pacproinc) Collegeville, Pa., director of sales and marketing Drew Ward also points to interest in systems that are easily adaptable. He cites improvements like the company’s bi-directional stack exit conveyor that allows for finished stacks to be discharged to either side of a line, accommodating different packages, like gas-flushed or boxed products.

Waste not, want not

Another driver of bacon packaging technology stems from concurrent consumer interests and processor realities: packages that require less waste.

If bacon packaging isn’t quite “green”, it’s a shade closer than it’s been in the past. “One interesting trend is related to reduced packaging,” agrees Ward, who points out that less wasted packaging for large-volume distributors means less wasted space at the distribution center and during transport.

In addition to the use of materials like preprinted films that allow for the elimination of L-boards and outer packaging, equipment used to process and package bacon can also make a difference. Ward notes that the Pacproinc’s “lay flat” bacon interleaving and stacking solutions help maintain consistent product layouts. “In many cases, that allows us to cut shorter sheets and results in the ability to use smaller cases,” he says.

Minimal packaging can also set a processor apart on the store shelf. That’s been the result of the recent redesign of the Tyson Wright brand of bacon, which is now merchandised in a vacuum-shrink, clear film with a foil label off to one side. The design cuts down on waste and also allows for the product itself to “pop” in a colorful, crowded retail bacon display.

Another trend that ties into environmentally-driven concerns about packaging waste is the growth of the natural bacon segment. “Natural continues to trend up even in foodservice,” notes Ward, who adds that such an uptick hasn’t affected his company’s business yet, due to its focus on higher-volume processing.

Given its status as a food, though, naturally-cured bacon products are more likely to be packaged in a greener way, with less material and, perhaps in the future, more compostable or sustainable materials. Hormel’s Natural Choice bacon, for example, is sold in a package with a recyclable outer packaging in brown and green earth tones.

‘Grease’ is the word

Given bacon’s physical property as a greasy product, cleanliness is a factor in bacon packaging and affects components ranging from the type of barrier film to the type of sealant.

Even with pouches of precooked bacon, which have emerged in recent years as toppings and ingredients for other meals, the grease factor is an issue. “With those, you need linear tear features and an anti-grease sealant – you want something that will repel the grease,” remarks Bruehl.

Bacon packaging machines have been a focus of greater sanitation efforts as well. Koch, for instance, reports that sanitary design has moved up the priority list of desired features for processing and packaging systems for bacon.

Likewise, Ward says that sanitation has emerged as a major influence in bacon-packaging systems. “Regarding manufacturing trends, sanitary design requirements are becoming more stringent even outside of ready-to-eat applications,” he observes.

As for the future, processors and suppliers can expect bacon to remain a strong category with more product offerings that affect both processing and packaging systems. “Bacon is almost trendless – they are always adding it to something,” notes Ward. •

Lynn Petrak is a freelance writer who lives in the Chicago area.