Everywhere you look, it seems, there is a new kind of bacon product. Bacon-laced dark chocolate bars. Bacon-infused vodka. Bacon-topped sundaes at Denny’s restaurants. And, believe it or not, a bacon-scented cologne for men.

Plain old bacon, of course, is still a household staple. According to Geoff Feil, Oscar Mayer senior brand manager for Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods, although pork belly prices have risen as much as 70 percent since 2009, consumers have brought home the bacon in many ways. “Despite high pork belly prices, the ‘state of bacon’ is good. Bacon category sales are up nearly 15 percent year to date,” he reports.

While bacon remains a major draw to the refrigerated grocery case (and to store shelves for pre-cooked, ready-to-eat varieties), the category has some new twists. Premium, artisan-style and natural bacon products, for example, have emerged in popularity in recent years (the American Culinary Federation listed craft bacon as the third-hottest ingredient this year) and bacon processors are touting such items with different types of packaging.

Attracting customers

Oscar Mayer, for its part, merchandises its premium Center Cut bacon in a plastic rigid tray with a film seal. The transparent package walls effectively showcase the product, allowing shoppers to look at the entire length of bacon slices. “What communicates premium or upscale to consumers is the lean-to-fat ratio of the bacon. Consumers eat with their eyes first, and bacon purchasers are looking at the product to evaluate it based on looks,” observes Feil. “It’s important to have a package that shows the product.”

For both newer and classic types of bacon, quality is always a top-of-mind concern when it comes to packaging. Befitting its traditional pork belly origins, bacon is typically fatty and greasy and requires barrier materials and sealants to ensure quality and freshness.

Some bacon processors have turned to new materials to optimize package protection. Farmland Foods, a Kansas City, Mo., division of Smithfield Foods, utilizes a bacon film made with special Surlyn resins from DuPont. Curwood Inc. provides Farmland with the innovative film, which is designed for strong sealing as well as improved graphics and a reduction in leakage due to potential punctures.

Sustainability is another factor driving choices across the consumer packaged goods industry. Bacon is not immune to the march toward greener packaging features, evident in new bacon packages from East Brunswick, NJ-based Plumrose Foods. Packages of that brand’s 24-oz Hearty Country Style Thick-Sliced Bacon now feature a smaller, easy-to-grip slider clip. In addition to the benefits of convenience and resealability, the new clip is 60 percent smaller than the previous one, and the zipper and flange require 40 percent less material.

When Applegate Farms, Bridgewater, NJ, upgraded its bacon packaging last year, sustainability was an important consideration. “We switched from a bacon board to a pre-printed plastic sleeve and the benefits are numerous. By taking an element out, we reduced the carbon footprint, and it also gives more visual accessibility to the product,” explains art director Chaz Hampton, who helped spearhead the redesign.

New bacon options

Differentiating one’s brand through aesthetics is about as tried and true of a packaging strategy as one can get, and it is especially pivotal with newer products in the bacon category. One entire new subcategory – poultry bacon – reflects the importance of distinguishing a product on the package, through both graphics and packaging materials.

Turkey bacon is the fastest-growing segment in the bacon category, Feil says, which is why Oscar Mayer recently launched Oscar Mayer Turkey Bacon with Lower Sodium and Sea Salt. Accordingly, the product’s package includes the iconic Oscar Mayer logo and color scheme, but has a red instead of yellow background. The graphics tout that this bacon is made from turkey and cured with sea salt.

Greeley, Colo.-based Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. is creating its own point of difference by rolling out a new line of chicken bacon sold in an eye-catching film package that allows for a 65-day shelf life. “In designing the package, we created a look that fit in well with our Pilgrim’s case-ready chicken packaging, differentiating it from the competition. And we gave prominent position to the health claims, highlighting the lower fat and sodium levels compared to turkey bacon,” reports Andy Seymour, senior vice president, prepared foods marketing.

With so many parallel trends in the bacon category, processors are finding a need to balance multiple packaging requirements and goals. Applegate Farms recently launched an organic, naturally-cured bacon exclusive to Whole Foods Market made with Becker Lane Berkshire pork. The bacon is part of Whole Foods’ Global Animal Partnership program and also reflects growing consumer interest in locally-made or craft-style bacon.

“Everyone is looking for new ways to stand out, whether it’s thick-cut bacon, flavored bacon or lower-sodium bacon, and this is another arena with farmer-specific and breed specific bacon,” says Gina Asoudegan, director of communications for Applegate Farms. “We are all familiar with celebrity chefs, and now farmers are becoming the new food celebrities. Telling our customers that on the package conveys to them what premium is.”

Hampton agrees there is a lot going on that must be communicated to shoppers via the package. “That is the No. 1 challenge – to try to be as clear and succinct as possible to state what the product is and isn’t,” he explains, noting that the package had to incorporate the needed verbiage, along with the respective seals and logos. After a careful graphic design, the final package also has a large enough window in the sleeve to show off the bacon itself.

Finally, although bacon packaging is designed to appeal to the end user, today’s designs and materials also can make it easier for processors. Taking out a back board, for instance, removes one packaging step. And the resins in Farmland’s bacon film are promoted just as much for providing a great look as the fact that they allow for a good tack and faster machine speeds.