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Have We Reached Peak Bacon?

Pig fat has never been more expensive. Will savory slabs go the way of the oyster?


Photo: Larissa Veronesi / Westend61 / Corbis
 

Bacon prices are skyrocketing. A consumer report from Canada shows that the price of pig fat has ticked up almost ten percent in the last month – and that’s on top of an over-$1.50-per-500 gram hike over the last six months. There are several reasons for the change, notably an epidemic of porcine diarrhea that killed between 2.7 and 6 million baby pigs earlier this year. But pestilence would be a less significant issue if bacon’s popularity wasn’t also on the rise. A study by the mobile payment company Square found that Bacon is the most popular extra topping in at least five major American cities and top five overall. That result was linked with the trend of commuters eating breakfast on the go. If production can’t keep up with demand, consumers may make an everyday treat into a delicacy - and soon.

Though it might be strange to think of bacon as a gourmand’s indulgence, it wouldn’t be the first staple to make the transition from street stands to high-end restaurants. Before the 20th century, New York City was awash in oysters, which grew by the hundreds of millions in 350 square miles of bivalve-friendly beds on the Hudson Estuary. Oyster stands were more common then than menus with bacon cheeseburgers are now. When the beds got polluted, the population dropped and prices jumped. Oysters went from being the go-to New York snack to being a privilege of the wealthy. Pigs are don’t require as specific an environment as oysters, but the density of commercial pig farms does make similar population adjustments.

In a sense, bacon has been headed in this direction for a long time. Brands like Niman Ranch, D'Artagnan, and Bac'n gained fame and notoriety selling high-quality, high-priced slabs even as the health industrial complex shouted about the importance of moderating our saturated fat intake. The message: Enjoy your bacon, but don’t enjoy it too often. 

The current price hike is hardly the first. Like any commodity, bacon varies in price, but the trend (since the Hoof and Mouth scare in the early 2000s) has been overwhelmingly up and to the left. Bacon prices spike and recover, but they don’t return to anywhere near pre-spike prices. The current upswing is the steepest yet and given that the effects of the epidemic have yet to truly hit, we can expect slabs to become increasingly dear.

All that said, bacon isn’t going anywhere. People like it too damn much. The question is what sort of person will be asking consumer if they “want bacon with that” a decade from now. It could be the guy behind the counter at the local burger chain or a bow-tied waiter. Hopefully the worst-case scenario becomes nothing more than an interesting counterfactual, but if our umami fears are realized, we’ll be the ones in the restaurant saying, “yes.” Bacon is – and this isn’t a market judgment – worth more than we pay for it. It’s bacon. It’s delicious. How much do you want?

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