Bringin’ home the bacon

When I wrote about the possible dangers of having 40% fewer meat inspectors in pork slaughterhouses, I didn’t mean to cause such alarm among readers.  Just be sure to say grace before meals and everything should be okay.

As I mentioned, I still like my occasional bacon and baby back barbequed ribs. 

One of my best memories is going out to the garden when I was young and picking some fresh tomatoes for a homemade BLT.  When I worked at Farmland Foods, the company would have an employee sale every so often.  Each time, I purchased a case (24) of 1-pound packages.  I froze most of them, but gave a few packages to my mom and in-laws.  We never ran out of bacon.

This past week I noticed that Target has Oscar Mayer Bacon on sale for “2 for $11”.  Yikes!  On sale?  Oh, for crying out loud!  Who would want bacon that much?  I had to research to see if this is some sort of joke.  It’s not.

A lot of what I have been reading lately points to higher bacon prices.  It will undoubtedly affect ham prices, as well. 

Before the Trump Administration increased tariffs on the Chinese, China had bought about 60% of variety meats processed by American pork plants.  Variety meats include pigs’ feet, pork hocks, pig ears, etc.  The demand for variety meats kept the value of other pork products at a reasonable price.  Because of the recent trade war between China and the U.S., Chinese consumers were less likely to buy those variety meats.  From my experience in the meat industry, that means that a lot of cold storage plants in the U.S. are storing tons of variety meats that cannot be sold as easily in American markets.  In order to offset the disparity in products sold and unsold, the value of bacon and ham are going to rise.

Prior to the recent trade agreement, China’s purchases of American livestock products amounted to over $100 billion a year.  Slapping a 25% tariff on those goods was a blow to this country’s pork producers.  At some point, if other countries like Mexico, the second leading importer of U.S. pork products, do not increase their importation of pork products, pork producers are going to have to cut back on production.  That could make the prices of bacon and ham in the U.S. rise even higher.    

Bacon’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past few decades.  Fast-food restaurants have discovered that bacon, cheese, and a hamburger naturally complement each other.  Des Moines has a Bacon Festival that started in a bar with a few regular customers and morphed into a massive event needing a convention center, all in a decade.  Like many instances, once a person or thing becomes popular or rare, the costs go up.

In 1943, a pound of bacon cost forty-three cents a pound.  Twelve years later, in 1955, bacon was priced at 54¢ per pound.  It didn’t go over a dollar a pound until 1973 when the average price hit $1.16 per pound, thirty-two cents a pound higher than the previous year’s average of 84¢ a pound.  1980’s cost of bacon was a steady $1.48.  Bacon hit two dollars in 1986 when the average price per pound was $2.12. 

Somewhere between 1973 and 1986 bacon picked up a bad reputation and its value dropped.  A study in the late 70s or early 80s determined that eating bacon caused cancer.  I have a vivid memory of Dean Bowden, a product manager at Farmland Foods in Denison, coming into our work area, waving his hands, and yelling for us not to believe things we read in newspapers.  “In order for you to get cancer from eating bacon you would have to eat 90,000 lbs. a day” to match the ratio of nitrates that those scientists gave to lab rats. 

I got to experience the process of making bacon first hand.  I was laid off during my first year working in the pork plant.  Within a week (I didn’t even get a chance to draw one unemployment insurance check) I was called back to work the second shift.  The plant superintendent told me that he was going to make a pickle maker out of me.  I thought of Vlasic, Gedney, and other brands of pickles, but didn’t know Farmland made them. 

Pickle is actually the brine that goes into bacon, ham, and other smoked meats.  I was brought into a room with huge vats filled with water, and salt and sugar bags neatly stacked on pallets.  I was taught in a matter of minutes how to prepare brine for hams and bacon.  The pickle I made was to be used that night by the second shift of employees pumping the brine into the pork bellies for bacon, and hams for smoking.

A huge vat was filled with water.  A bag or so of salt was added; a portion of a bag of sugar, a small dose of sodium tripolyphosphate to help the meat retain moisture, and two little bottles of a white substance with labels indicating that each was approximately 10-20 grams – not even one ounce.  One of those bottles contained sodium nitrite, a preservative (anti-oxidant) and the supposed cause of cancer.  The other bottle contained sodium nitrate, also an anti-oxidant that helps cured meats retain their color.  Sodium nitrate is naturally produced in photosynthesis; sodium nitrite is synthetically made. 

The weight of the nitrites used in the process of bacon making are minuscule to the rest of the ingredients, and that includes the weight of the raw material – pork bellies.  I had read a summary of one of the reports warning against nitrites in meat.  Dean Bowden was right.  The dose of nitrites given the rats was extremely out of proportion to the ratio of nitrite in pickle.

The bacon cancer scare must have occurred again in 1988 and 1989 when a pound of bacon dropped back down below $2.00 per pound.  It lasted only two years.

The 1990s saw bacon prices hold steady between two and three dollars a pound.  Then came the 2000s.  $3.46 in 2000; $3.60 in 2001; $4.13 in 2004; and $5.14 in 2011.  Wait a minute.  I was buying bacon in 2011 and I can’t believe I bought it for that price. Well, I didn’t. 

Getting older means that you don’t eat the same things you ate as a teenager.  I didn’t eat much bacon since I no longer worked in the packinghouse and didn’t participate in employee sales.  I ate bacon, but the bulk of that was in a restaurant, eating it as a guest at someone else’s table, or finding it inexpensive at a huge meat sale.  Mostly, I avoided it.  I didn’t eat breakfast.  I wasn’t eating many BLTs in the summertime, either.  A few years ago, I picked up the yen for savory smoked bacon again.  Cancer be damned. 

Mature reasoning has led me to make sensible purchases.  I now buy bacon by the slice.  It’s cheaper, it’s easier to store, you don’t need the whole damned pound, anyway.  Besides, you’ll find that slab bacon seems to be meatier.

I know I’m not going to pay $5.50 a pound for Oscar Mayer bacon.  I need only 4 slices at a time.  The counter person always asks me what recipe I have where it calls for only 4 slices of bacon.  There’s no particular recipe, you see, 4 slices fit neatly in the pan. 

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