After a difficult few years, the UK bacon market appears to have turned a corner. Worth £914m to the grocery sector, value sales have grown 2%, while volumes are up 1.5%, according to Kantar Worldpanel data for the 52 weeks ending 25 February.
In foodservice, almost 921 million servings of bacon are sold each year and this grew by 10.4% over the same period, Kantar figures show.
Bacon’s enduring popularity is all the more surprising, given the World Health Organization (WHO) 2015 report linking bacon and other processed meats with cancer. A review of all the available evidence concluded that the risk of colorectal cancer could be reduced by eating less processed meats.
If anything, the negative publicity – allied to the growing demand for vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets – has acted as a spur for bacon manufacturers to create new products that are claimed to be healthier than traditional varieties. Aided by advances in equipment and packaging technology, bacon producers clearly have a great deal to be positive about.
Finnebrogue is one bacon manufacturer that has risen to the challenge, with the launch of Naked Bacon, which uses no nitrites.
“It is the first time we have gone to market in a major way with a branded product,” says managing director Brian McMonagle. “We have made our name as a leading supplier of top-tier sausages, mostly as own-label offerings in the major retailers. Our branded Naked Bacon was a big step for us and it has certainly made a significant impact in its short time in the market.”
McMonagle believes there is a “big market out there” for additive free foods – especially a nitrite-free product that he says tastes great and is as healthy as bacon can be.
“Our goal is to make this offering as widely accessible as possible,” he says. “We are looking at extending the product tierings and will launch a smoked version in May.”
New product development (back to top)
Other manufacturers are investigating this avenue too. “We are running trials on how we can reduce and remove nitrates within our products,” says Matt Casey, new product development and innovation controller at Dalehead Foods, a division of Tulip. “Nitrates have multiple functions within bacon, so the challenge is to deliver a product that still delivers the flavour and taste customers are looking for.”
Cranswick, another leading manufacturer of bacon, says salt has been its focus in the drive to produce healthier bacon. “We are always reviewing the health credentials of our products,” says Andy Napthine, group marketing controller. “Much of our focus has been on reducing the salt and sodium content of our bacon products, which is top of mind for consumers.”
Despite a desire among some consumers for a healthier type of bacon, price is the most pressing consideration for most shoppers. “The strongest growth in bacon has been delivered through the value tier,” says Nicola Hobson, head of insight at Tulip.
Asda and Tesco have both introduced ‘farm’ brands as their value offer in bacon, and these have proved extremely popular. The value tier has grown by 37% in value and by 41% in volume in the 52 weeks to 25 February, Kantar data shows.
Bacon is also being increasingly used as a recipe ingredient, which is reflected in the increase of streaky bacon, up 21% and lardons, up 10.2%. These incremental sales are further helping to drive category growth.
Bacon sales continue to be dominated by standard bacon, with premium products only accounting for 9% of the market, which is lower compared with other meat sectors. Premium bacon performed strongly in the 12 weeks to 25 February, growing by 15.3% in value and 13.2% in volume, according to Kantar.
“One of the challenges for the category is to look to develop new eating occasions and formats for bacon and gammon, so our innovation stream at Cranswick is critical to drive growth,” says Napthine.
Quirky products are also making an appearance. “We are always looking at bringing new innovations to consumers, including exploring new and interesting flavour combinations,” claims Peter Broomfield, site director of Tulip Redruth.
“Some of our new flavours include chorizo bacon, maple bacon and salted caramel bacon. We’ll continue to look at these innovations to help bring further choice to the category.”
Advances in technology (back to top)
For bacon manufacturers, advances in technology mean there is a wider range of machinery capable of high-capacity processing of sliced bacon for the retail market or bulk bacon for foodservice customers.
Cranswick manufactures high-quality artisanal bacon on a larger scale and cures the product by hand. It has, however, invested in machinery to take on some parts of production. “We have automated certain aspects of the process – such as measuring out the cure mixture to ensure we have a consistent product,” says Napthine.
At Tulip Redruth, £500,000 has been invested in the past year in its top-tier bacon slicing equipment to ensure higher-quality cuts, says Broomfield.
“This enables us to freeze the outside of the bacon at a lower temperature to allow for cleaner slices of the bacon shingle,” he explains. “The higher temperature on the inside also ensures the bacon sticks together more easily during the slicing process.
“We have also invested around £500,000 in our bacon curing technology. This enables us to more accurately ensure consistent salt levels throughout the bacon slices within a pack.”
Similarly, after winning a substantial contract in 2016 to supply bacon to Aldi, Robertson’s Fine Foods embarked on a £3m expansion programme that included the opening of a new processing plant in Irvine, Ayrshire.
The new plant, partly funded through a six-figure grant from Scottish Enterprise, was built to complement its original slaughtering facility in Ardrossan on the west coast.
Iain Robertson, Robertson’s chairman, worked closely on the project with Brian Teece, regional manager for Scotland at Interfood Technology, which supplied the firm’s bacon processing equipment.
“With our ambition to increase retail capacity, the demands on our business for maximum efficiency are greater than ever,” says Robertson. “We produce a wide range, from raw to cooked product, and with this comes different challenges in driving efficiency.”
Total Automation (back to top)
After working with Interfood, Robertson chose to equip the new plant with a Schröder injector, Henneken brine mixer and tumbler, K&G Wetter mixer, mincer and bowl cutter, and a Maurer-Atmos smoker and oven. Total automation is not right for every plant, but for larger manufacturers, this is certainly the prevailing direction of travel.
For bacon manufacturers, this starts at the abattoir and machinery firms are responding with ever-increasing sophistication. Marel has continued to develop automatic systems and robots for the slaughtering process. Its latest development is the M-Line, which is a new generation of kill floor automation, using articulating arm robots.
Further down the chain, fully integrated pressing and slicing lines are also increasingly fully automated. This removes a costly labour process from the line that can then be utilised elsewhere in the factory.
Available from Interfood Technology, the Hoegger IP320 hydraulic bacon press can be used either inline or offline with the Textor TS-700 bacon slicer, which slices two products simultaneously.
The Hoegger IP320 Inline, coupled with the Hoegger Duo lift, fully automates the process, with the product pressed, aligned and loaded directly into the slicer. Alternatively, the IP320 Inline can be used in a press centre scenario, where high-volume pressing is required to feed multiple slicing lines.
This system, which has the latest hydraulic controls, is said to work well even with very irregular raw materials. This allows a bacon producer to purchase a wider range of specifications while avoiding the need for time-consuming die changes.
Bacon slicers are also advancing. Textor slicers are made by the Weber manufacturing group, and are aimed at manufacturers that need more compact, simpler and cost-effective slicers. Bulk bacon versions of the Textor TS-700 are also available in an even simpler form, with capacities of up to 4,000kg per hour, also with a compact footprint.
Trends in bacon sales
- The bacon rashers market has declined by 8.6% in five years, primarily driven by a decrease in average price.
- Performance has picked up in the last year, with shoppers purchasing more bacon, more frequently and the price decrease slowing slightly.
- Bigger basket sizes have been key to growth in bacon rashers in the last year, following several periods of smaller basket sizes having driven overall volumes down.
- Unsmoked rashers make up almost 60% of the market.
- Price decreases in the market have been driven by a decrease in base price, with volume sales on promotions having actually decreased, now standing at 40%.
- There has been a significant drop-off in volume-based promotional deals over the past five years.
- Temporary price reductions have become more important, and are now 20% of all volume sales.
Source: Kantar Worldpanel
Pledges on plastic
Plastic packaging has shot up the political agenda recently, which gives bacon manufacturers another area to focus on.
Some businesses are already responding, despite the huge practical and financial challenges of finding any realistic alternative to plastic for the vast majority of foods, including bacon.
Cranswick announced earlier this year that, by 2025, it would reduce the weight of its plastic packaging from farm to fork by 50%, reuse all of its internal materials in a closed loop system across its business,
and recycle all the packaging it uses by ensuring it is not only 100% recyclable, but easily recyclable, supporting circular waste solutions.
The firm also said it would lobby the Government to support a cohesive national recycling infrastructure.
“We have made some significant pledges to reduce the amount of plastic we are using within the business,” says group marketing controller Andy Napthine.
“As a result, bacon is one of the areas we are looking at and we will continue to work with our packaging suppliers to deliver an alternative to plastic that does not adversely affect the shelf-life or product quality of the bacon.”
Tulip is also carrying out trials. “Our bacon packs are made with recycled plastic, but traditionally, the challenge has been making the pack itself recyclable, because of the different types of plastic used for the seal lid and the main packet,” says Peter Broomfield, site director of Tulip Redruth.
“We are trialling solutions at the moment, as well as looking at how we can reduce the amount of plastic used in existing packs.”