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Bacon makes a pig comeback

Updated:
Don't we ever learn? Americans pursuing the good life use more than our fair share of the world's supply. That drives up demand, which pushes up prices, which makes us grumble even as we worry about a shortage that might make us cut back.

We're talking about bacon, of course.

The National Pork Producers Council reports that retail prices for sliced bacon jumped from $2.50 to $2.92 per pound between March 1999 and March 2000. Wholesale pork bellies - the raw material that's refined into bacon - have nearly doubled in the past year, according to Oscar Mayer economist Bruce Ginn, foreshadowing more price hikes at the supermarket.

"It's really interesting how things have turned around for bacon," says Dudley Snyder, president of New Braunfels Smokehouse, a specialty meat supplier in the Hill Country town of the same name.

"Five or six years ago, I thought we could probably go ahead and sell our bacon slicers because they were sitting idle so much," he says. "Everybody thought bacon was unhealthy and so on. But a lot of people are changing their minds. I bet sales have doubled for us since then."

Pork producers are thanking several factors for that sizzle. Once spurned as a greasy, nitrite-laden threat to arteries, bacon is showing up in diets that advocate lots of protein and few carbohydrates.

"All of a sudden meat's not getting such a bad rap," says Mr. Ginn.

The resurgent popularity is prompting restaurants to pile bacon on burgers, chicken sandwiches and other entrees like never before. Mr. Ginn says more than half of the bacon supply now winds up in "food-service channels," up from 35 percent a few years ago.

Nobody is claiming this is good for you. At Jack in the Box, the Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger contains 1,020 calories and 71 grams of fat, including 26 grams of saturated fat. That's more fat than you're supposed to eat in the entire day (109 percent of government guidelines for fat intake and 129 percent of saturated-fat recommendations).

"But it tastes good," says Oscar Mayer spokeswoman Claire Regan. "If you just have a chicken breast, how much flavor is in that chicken breast, day after day after day?"

Mr. Ginn says bacon supplies actually have remained relatively stable over the past several years as producers responded to excess supplies and low prices by limiting production. Even though gasoline got more expensive, there was still plenty to go around, he says, and so it shall be with bacon.

"Prices are going to be higher than they've been in the last couple of years, but they were at 20-year lows," he says. "There's not going to be a shortage or anything like that."

Mr. Snyder at the New Braunfels Smokehouse says he hasn't had to raise prices yet, but concedes that may be coming. He's not worried about a shortage.

"Pigs are just so prolific," he says.
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