Why did the chicken and turkey cross into the bacon category? To get to the other side.

It may not be funny, but it really is no joke that today’s bacon category has expanded from traditional pork bacon to include more poultry bacon products, as chicken and turkey processors look to penetrate new markets and capture a greater share of the nation’s — and world’s — protein consumption. Indeed, both national and regional poultry processors are bellying up to what was once a pork belly-ruled sector with “bacon” typically from cured or uncured smoked, chopped and reformed meat, often from the thigh.

Turkey bacon isn’t new, since some brands of turkey bacon have been on the market for decades. That said, as another calendar year is ushered in, more processors have launched turkey bacon varieties and those who already have established turkey bacon lines are expanding into other varieties and forms.

Time for turkey

Take the Butterball brand, for instance. Garner, NC-headquartered Butterball LLC has long offered fresh turkey bacon for consumers looking for alternatives to pork bacon, for reasons related to health, religion, lifestyle or price. Last September, Butterball diversified its line and unveiled its Butterball Fully Cooked Turkey Bacon. The bacon, which was rolled out concurrently with fully cooked turkey breakfast sausage links and patties, can be prepared in the microwave within seconds and is packaged in a 3-oz. carton with 15 slices. While Butterball’s precooked turkey bacon is quick and easy to use, it also reflects the overall consumer movement to use bacon as an ingredient or topping in other dayparts besides breakfast.

“We are continuing to see the demand for Butterball Turkey Bacon grow. Consumers continue to look for healthier alternatives to traditional pork bacon, and our Fully Cooked Turkey Bacon provides them with a more convenient, better-for-you option,” says Kari Lindell, director of retail marketing for Butterball, pointing out that the new offering is the first branded fully cooked turkey bacon product to be introduced to the market.

Butterball has added to its traditional turkey bacon with other varieties, too, such as lower sodium turkey bacon and “Thin & Crispy” turkey bacon. According to Lindell, the main driver for all turkey bacon sales remains health and nutrition; turkey bacon has 65 percent less fat than pork bacon, she notes.

Another turkey-centric brand, Jennie-O Turkey Store in Millmar, Minn., has enhanced its main turkey bacon product with a newer alternative. The Hormel-owned Jennie-O Turkey Store’s Extra Lean turkey bacon is 95 percent fat free and has been cross-promoted by the TV-inspired “Biggest Loser” diet program.

While Butterball and Jennie-O Turkey Store have built their respective brands on turkey, other processors with multispecies product lines complement traditional pork bacon with poultry alternatives.

Kraft Foods’ Madison, Wis.-based Oscar Mayer brand, for instance, offers regular turkey bacon, as well as reduced sodium turkey bacon. While that bacon was formerly packaged under the Louis Rich turkey brand, it is now marketed with the venerable Oscar Mayer name. Bar-S Foods is another example, selling both pork bacon and a line of turkey bacon, which was introduced a few years ago.

Regional favorites

Underscoring the fact that birds of a feather flock together, processors with strong regional businesses have delved into this segment as well. For example, Godshall’s Quality Meats, Telford, Penn., has long offered basic turkey bacon and recently rolled out a new maple flavor turkey bacon and a turkey Canadian bacon. “There has been interest in turkey bacon, which is why we got into it,” remarks Floyd Kratz, senior vice president.

Private-label turkey bacon products have also emerged, at a time when budget-conscious consumers opt for lower-priced proteins that also offer a halo of health and flavor. The Trader Joe’s chain of stores, for instance, has its customers talking turkey with a new, uncured, peppered, applewood-smoked turkey bacon. The Kroger chain, meantime, offers its own brand of hickory-smoke-flavored turkey bacon pieces to be used as ingredients and toppings.

As processors expand turkey bacon offerings or make room in their red-meat portfolio for poultry breakfast meats, turkey bacon is also catching on as an ingredient, both for at-home and away-from-home meals. Scroll through the National Turkey Federation website, for instance, and you’ll find all sorts of turkey bacon recipes, turkey-bacon wrapped turkey medallions to turkey bacon biscuits. Indeed, in an era where pork bacon has a strong, almost beloved following with a crush of bacon-infused products that run the gamut from bacon vodka to “baconnaise” to chocolate-covered bacon, specialty-food companies may have their eye on turkey bacon as a product that marries the smoky, sumptuous taste of bacon with a lower-sodium, lower-fat profile.

On the foodservice side, turkey bacon is likewise making headway among those looking to go less hog wild with their bacon. McDonald’s, for its part, is meeting the needs of its pork-eschewing customers overseas with a new Breakfast Deluxe Supreme featuring turkey bacon. Earlier this year, Denny’s began offering turkey bacon as part of its new Fit Fare menu options.

And chicken bacon isn’t just a novelty anymore, thanks to recently introduced chicken-based bacon products. Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, for one, offers chicken bacon touted as having half the fat of traditional pork bacon.

Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Greeley, Colo., recently unveiled its own chicken bacon, after conducting extensive R&D work. While turkey bacon is often made from mechanically separated turkey, Pilgrim’s Pride chicken bacon is made from whole muscle chicken, according to company information.

Even as Godshall’s Quality Meats is busy in its R&D department developing new turkey bacon varieties, that company is tapping the potential of chicken bacon. In late fall, Godshall’s announced the addition of chicken bacon to its line of packaged meat products, with no extenders and only natural wood smoke to impart a distinctive, wood-smoke aroma when cooked. “It’s as lean as our turkey bacon and from there, it does get crispy like pork bacon,” explains Kratz, adding that the slightly higher fat content in the thigh gives it that crispiness compared to turkey bacon.

Finally, proving that what’s old is new and that everything eventually comes full circle in this industry, poultry’s own answer to pork fat is getting some attention. The New York Times and the Huffington Post have pegged crispy chicken skin as a top food trend for 2012.

Lynn Petrak is a free-lance writer based in the Chicago area.