I love bacon. I love thick-cut hickory smoked bacon, applewood bacon, country bacon, and I even love that thinly sliced (previously frozen in a cardboard package) bacon you get from diners.
But I just read ‘The Bacon Boom Was Not an Accident‘ on BusinessWeek and suddenly I’m questioning whether or not I actually love bacon, or if I only love if the bacon lobbyists of America want me to.
Since the ‘Bacon Boom’ bacon is EVERYWHERE, from toothpaste and candles, to Reebok Shoes getting in the bacon game. But why? It’s fucking delicious, but so are a vast many other things available in the world.
Food & Drink writer David Sax at BusinessWeek did an incredible exposé on the rise and domination of bacon from an average snack to perhaps the biggest force in food. Here are some excerpts from his piece, but I highly suggest reading the entire thing by clicking HERE:
In the past decade, bacon has grown into an industry generating more than $4 billion in annual sales. It has moved from a breakfast meat to a food trend touching an incredible array of consumer goods, both edible and not, from bacon-heavy fast-food burgers and bacon-infused desserts at fine dining restaurants to bottles of bacon-distilled vodka and even a sexual lubricant formulated to smell (and taste) like bacon. More than cupcakes, ramen, or kale, bacon has become the defining food trend of a society obsessed with food trends.
Good, fuck kale.
In terms of economic impact, nothing beats bacon. While most food trends tend to trickle down from the gourmet market into the mouths of mass consumers, that wasn’t the case with bacon. Bacon mania was sparked not in the kitchens of fancy restaurants in New York or Chicago, but in the pork industry’s humble marketing offices in Iowa, where people like Joe Leathers engineered a turnaround for an underappreciated cut of pig.
I’ll have you know I CRUSH FARMS WORTH OF BACON at fancy restaurants here in New York. You don’t know me, you don’t know where I got my bacon obsession from.
The pork belly futures contract was born at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1961 as a result of this cycle: Farmers with an excess supply of pork bellies sold them to cold storage warehouses, thus locking in a price long before tomato season hit. Pork belly traders made money speculating on the spread between the price of bellies on those contracts and the price they got when they finally sold the frozen meat to a smokehouse, where it was made into bacon.
All of this changed in the 1980s when powerful health and diet trends transformed the American food industry. Based on evidence that saturated fat and cholesterol were at the core of everything from heart health and obesity to cancer rates, eating lean became the collective mantra, and the food world responded by marketing to fat phobia. Diet sodas became the rage, margarine replaced butter everywhere, and the words “Fat Free” could sell a car. Bacon, which is essentially two-thirds fat, was doomed. “First the fat scare began, and then the nitrate scare,” recalls Leathers. “That was big. That was really the first food scare. I’ll bet you bacon sales fell off 35-40 percent.”
So when your friend sends you this meme below now you can explain to them the reasons behind it:
But here’s where it all changes, and why we’re all just cogs in the corporate machine….
The Pork Marketing Board worked with advertising and marketing firms to position the pig as a sort of four-legged chicken—a healthy part of any low-fat lifestyle. The Other White Meat campaign launched in 1987 and was so successful at selling lean pork cuts, it actually hurt the rest of the pig.
As warehouses accumulated unwanted piles of frozen pork bellies, prices dropped, dipping as low as 19¢ per pound. The U.S. government encouraged meatpackers to sell bellies as a cheap export to the Soviet Union and as food aid to impoverished African states. “I was on a trade mission to sell bellies to Poland,” Leathers says. “We just had freezers full of bellies. There was such little demand that the U.S. was literally giving them away.”
A few Pork Board marketers, who worked with companies on the food service side of the industry (as opposed to retail), figured it couldn’t hurt to at least try to kick-start bacon sales. They came up with a plan to reposition bacon as a “flavor enhancer” to the restaurant industry, because there was a greater chance of diners accepting bacon when they ate out.
Oh, so you’re saying that somewhere someone selling bacon wants me to eat bacon more than someone else selling some competing product?
The desire was there. For years, fast-food outlets had been offering extra-lean burgers and sandwiches. At the same time, they were responding to the increased liability from food poisoning lawsuits (especially after the deadly 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box) by cooking all their burgers to well done. Lean hamburgers tended to taste like dry cardboard. “Remember when McDonald’s came out with the McLean? Well, that was a flop. It was a burger that had zero flavor,” says Leathers. “Now, if they were to put bacon on that, it would have been a huge success.” Adding a single slice of bacon to those sandwiches not only improved the taste and mouthfeel by multiples, but bacon’s low cost meant that they could be sold at a premium, tacking a healthy profit margin—Leathers estimates 50 percent to 60 percent—onto burgers.
The first chain to do this was Hardee’s, which at the time had a much larger share of the market than it does today.
The answer came in 1992, with the debut of the Hardee’s Frisco Burger, a line of sandwiches featuring bacon. It was to be a momentous event for fast food, and bacon’s fate, in America. “That’s the first time a chain ever put bacon on everything. It was tremendously successful,” says Cizek. “People would buy it, regardless of health cares. It just went.”
He then dives in to a technological revolution. Major advances were made on both the production (pre0made foods, preservation of frozen foods, etc) as well as the rise of social media, and thus we’re living in a bacon boom unlike anything the food industry has ever seen before.
The Internet, which was being conquered by Facebook and Twitter and the foodie blogosphere, devoured the bacon trend like a hungry dog. Some sites focused on selling “I ♥ Bacon” T-shirts and bacon bandages and other sundries, while others became forums for macho doomsday bacon recipes, with home chefs competing over how many pounds of bacon they could wrap and stuff around and inside another food object. Publishers handed out bacon book deals. There was a cable show called United States of Bacon.
If I see you wearing an ‘I <3 Bacon’ shirt in the street I might accidentally trip you and spill coffee on it, accidentally.
With each bacon lovers festival and Bacon baby conceived with bacon-flavored lube, the price of pork belly futures rose. At one point in 2010, futures jumped from 90¢ per pound to a record $1.40 in just four months. Bacon prices rose from about $3 a pound in 2005 to around $5.40 today, according to government statistics.
Soooo that’s why I haven’t been eating as much bacon in the past year or so? It’s become so expensive that only the corporate fat cat lobbyists who made ‘Bacon Mania’ a reality can afford it, and we little guys have been cut out.
Again, I highly suggest reading David Sax’s full write up HERE. But for now I want you to leave with one thing indelibly stuck in your mind: there are other foods that will make your mouth water, and bacon is a construct of lobbyists.
In fact, just last week I was sent this infographic (below) from Pillsbury Toaster Scrambles illustrating the disparity between sausage (the best meat there is) and bacon in the market. It’s actually disturbing how successful the bacon PR machine has been, but it’s time to take back #MeatEquality by getting on board with sausage:
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