Earlier this year, in March, Seaboard Foods, based in Merriam, Kan., launched what it calls the “top tier” in bacon, its Prairie Fresh USA Prime brand. Fresh pork production in the brand had gotten underway in the fall of 2020, but bacon wasn’t part of those offerings. Development of the overall Prairie Fresh USA Prime brand started in 2019 as the proprietary process for carcass selection was being finalized. The bacon extension to the brand was started after the company launched the pork brand.

Prairie Fresh USA Prime started with a slow ramp-up with several steps being taken at a time.

First, the company tested the technology that would allow it to launch products at this level. There was also investigation to see if there would be a customer base for these levels of products. And processing plants needed to be designated to carry on the production of bacon and other pork products. The fresh pork plants also needed to be equipped to produce bellies to ensure constant supply of Prairie Fresh USA Prime bellies to use for the Prime bacon.

High-level view

David Eaheart, senior director of communications and brand marketing, and Lucas Karlin, Prairie Fresh USA Prime product manager, described the Prairie Fresh endeavor as a process to establish a brand of bacon (and other pork products) at a level greatly in demand by consumers who are looking for meat products above the commodity level, i.e., value-added at a high level.

The project began with fresh pork production at one plant, with a second plant eventually coming online, followed by a third plant, in Guymon, Okla., which is expected to come online late this year or early 2023 for fresh pork production.

“With Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacon and pork products tied together, we knew we’d be able to produce enough bellies to make the kinds of bacon we were looking to sell,” Eaheart explained.

That is largely because the animal production and the processing are part of the company’s vertically integrated business model. Seaboard Foods and its connected food system are the third-largest pork producer in the United States, and the fourth-largest pork processor in the industry, processing more than 6 million hogs a year.

“Seaboard Foods farms produce 7.2 million hogs a year, and this number doesn’t include the hogs produced by our partner, Triumph Foods, which produces hogs for the connected food system,” Eaheart said.

The launch of the bacon line has been part of the overall strategy of Prairie Fresh USA Prime, which the company considers specialty products.

“This is in relation to fresh pork for Prairie Fresh USA Prime. We are expanding fresh pork into foodservice, but not necessarily focused on foodservice bacon for the brand,” Karlin said.

So, Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacon is sold in boutique supermarkets in New York City and other regional chains focused on providing their consumers with high-quality pork products.

“We have a big footprint in these upscale stores in full-service cases, as well as regionalized bacon retailers,” Karlin said. “But for now, the market is upscale groceries, and the company is being strategic about where the products are available. We can say they are being found in multiple chains across the US.”

Premium preference

In creating the Prairie Fresh USA Prime brand, Seaboard did a lot of research to discover what the market might be for specific types of bacon, especially premium bacon coming from high-end pork. The executives and researchers discovered there was a demand for these products, but why now?

“Our consumer research data showed there was a trend, a movement toward premium products, including bacon,” Eaheart said. “Our findings showed that there’s a segment of consumers looking for top-quality meat products, from fresh pork to bacon.

“Only a percentage of our fresh pork qualifies for pork belly processing into this level of bacon, which definitely is not a commodity meat product.”

Eaheart noted this trend did not start when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the United States and around the world, but before that.

The process being used to create the high-level fresh pork is proprietary, but the goal is to find and segregate highly marbled pork carcasses. From these, the bellies from the qualifying carcasses are destined for the Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacon. Specifically, the premium specifications on Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacon did not result in much variation. But what the company did discover was that the carcasses could be segregated at slaughter and the cut floor, specifically where the bellies are produced and isolated for bacon.

“Because we segregate the carcasses for our Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacon, the bellies from these segregated carcasses could be segregated as well, cut out there and moved on for further processing to make this top-tier bacon,” Karlin said.

So, the bellies must come from Prime carcasses, which must conform to strict specifications, such as highly marbled meat. These specs make the bellies, and the carcasses qualify as Prairie Fresh USA Prime.

“We could sell the bacon made from these bellies at retail, and target our customers for the bacon there,” Eaheart said, noting that consumers today are becoming more focused on food, and choosy about the quality of food they eat.

“People want a really good experience (with food),” he noted. “They want to have restaurant quality food at home. Meals have become more than just getting something to eat; they want to make use of and eat high-quality products.”

Packaged baconBellies destined for Seaboard Foods' top-tier Prairie Fresh USA Prime brand must be sourced from pork carcasses that are highly marbled and conform to other strict specifications. (Source: Seaboard Foods)


Belly Popularity

It’s no secret that during the pandemic, people began cooking and eating more meals at home, while patronizing restaurants far less. So, in a sense, the timing of Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacon being developed was good and worked out quite well, offering opportunities for customers to take advantage of this top-tier bacon at home.

The development of this premium bacon is also tied to what seems like the continuing and growing popularity of this iconic cut of meat.

“The fact that the popularity of bacon continues to grow — everyone loves bacon, whether for breakfast or other meals, as toppings, there are virtually no limits on the use of bacon — sets up perfectly for the development of Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacons,” Eaheart noted. “The quality of this bacon is one of the top factors that we were looking at, leading to its success.”

The Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacons, which evolved from the Prairie Fresh USA Prime fresh pork, include Hickory Smoked Thick Cut Bacon and Applewood Smoked Thick Cut Bacon. The pork bellies come from pork that is raised on US farms. The bacon is smoked with natural hardwoods and no liquid smoke.

“These bacons are the best of our best,” Eaheart said.

Bacon continues its strong growth throughout the United States and around the world. The Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacon is sold in 1¼-lb stack packs at retail. The company has established partnerships with specific retailers to sell the high-end bacon.

“The testing of the technology to create these products is an extensive, proprietary process. With the Prairie Fresh plants getting this technology into place, what is going on in the testing is visible to the plant operators on the floor. The process also involves a refining of the products — in other words, proving the technology works on the plant floor,” Karlin said.

“The research and watching took place on the cut and carcass floors,” he added.

Fresh pork plants producing bellies include Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Joseph, Mo., soon to include the Guymon, Okla., location. The research includes scientifically proven data.

For example, research for the bacon included testing with consumers, to show that the products should be taken to retailers and that there would be a retail market for them. The ramp-up for the technology and producing the products has been slow and methodical, Eaheart said. The process was carried out in a way that would insure there would be great demand for the Prairie Fresh USA Prime bacons eventually brought to grocery retail markets.