This article is part of our in-depth Meat, Fish & Poultry feature.

Crackling fat curling up invitingly in the pan as a rasher sizzles and spits, its aroma wafting through the house. Brits enjoy nothing short of a “love affair” with bacon, according to Tulip CEO Chris Thomas. “The taste, the smell, it’s evocative of so many pleasures that people love,” he says.

The affection runs so deep it surprised even the UK’s biggest pork farmer. When Tulip, which breeds 1.5 million pigs a year across a network of 450 farms, collected ideas for the relaunch of its flagship bacon brand Danepak last year, it was “overwhelmed with how passionate people are about the welfare, the taste and how it’s packaged” says Thomas.

What Tulip learned from that consumer research exercise is that, right now, what British shoppers care most about is health, convenience and cutting out waste. That’s why last year’s multi-million pound relaunch of Danepak included new resealable bacon packs and the return of microwaveable Rapid Rashers that deliver “really good quality” bacon in 90 seconds.

To satisfy health concerns, meanwhile, all Danepak lines contain 30% less salt than conventionally cured bacon thanks to the use of Iposol, a patented solution of water and sea salt unique to Tulip and developed over more than two years. “It’s a phenomenal achievement,” says Thomas. “You need less salt to get the same taste and curing capability.”

But what about provenance? ‘British shoppers want British pork products’ is a mantra often heard from UK farmers, and the mults are under growing pressure to source more UK-produced meat.

Thomas is not fazed. “We’re proud of the Danish heritage and we make no apologies for that whatsoever,” he says. “It’s stood the test of time. And if you look at customers’ affinity with Danish bacon, it’s very strong.”

“We’re proud of the Danish heritage and we make no apologies for that whatsoever.”

He is equally relaxed about claims Danish imports are subject to less stringent animal welfare standards than in the UK. “If you look the Red Tractor welfare standard in the UK and the Danish standard, there’s very little difference. We pride ourselves on operating to the highest welfare standard.” Plus, he adds, consumer research shows “Danish bacon is associated with quality just as UK material is”.

There’s no question, though, that while consumer feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive”, retailers are taking longer to bite. Out of the big four, only Tesco and Morrisons have listed the new Danepak 10 months after relaunch. Getting brands on shelves at a time of range rationalisation is a challenge, admits Thomas. “We have to make sure we appeal to the end consumer and utilise that appeal for why it should be stocked.” He’s hopeful a £1m TV ad campaign launched this month will help. It plans to build on the tongue-in-cheek tone set by Danepak’s Serious Bacon Club, an online community for bacon lovers.

danepak bacon

But along with laughs the brand will also need to deliver a serious defence against mounting attacks on the wider meat industry. Not least the controversial WHO report in October 2015 that linked processed meat to cancer and sent processed meat sales plummeting by 10%. The challenge, Thomas says, is this type of report “coincides with changing retail promotional strategy, and range rationalisations so it’s really quite difficult to unravel what the net effect of that is”.

It isn’t merely the WHO taking a swipe at meat, though. Unlikely heroes of vegetarianism have emerged in the bulky shape of Arnie Schwarzenegger amid mounting concerns over climate change; the use of antibiotics has attracted critics; and the health lobby are hardly bacon’s biggest fans. Rattled millennials are already ditching bacon from their fry-up, according to research revealed last month.

It makes for a tough environment for Tulip, the UK arm of Danish Crown, where turnover crept up 1.2% to £1.2bn last year, but pre-tax profits dropped 14%. Thomas is clear complacency is not an option.”I think there’ll be an increasing demand for assurance and reassurance and to keep investing in traceability systems that give people confidence not only where their meat has come from but what it’s been fed on, which materials from which sources, how that’s converted, how the bi-products are used, how we then utilise and track the packaging.” Tulip has already committed £100m of capital investment over the past five years in keeping facilities at the cutting edge. Thomas says it’s one of many signs the business is taking its bacon as seriously as the rest of us.

Chris Thomas on meat’s biggest challenges

  • Confidence post-Horsegate: “There’s been massive progress since 2013. Not just in awareness but in new forms of science such as genetic testing and isotope testing that start to allow you to have end-to-end traceability”
  • Meat and the environment: “It’s important we find ways of producing staple products that have been part of our diet for many years in an ever-more ecologically and environmentally friendly way, and we’ve embraced that”
  • Antibiotics in the supply chain: “We’re at the leading edge of work over reducing use to begin with. The long-term aim is clearly to eliminate the use completely and as and when we get to that stage we will of course be taking that view”
  • Health-conscious consumers: “I come right back to the point that these products have been part of our diet literally for centuries. I think we just have to help people understand how best to utilise the product, the kind of occasions it would be beneficial in and remind them what a great-tasting product it is”
  • Brexit: “What matters for us is not so much where that vote ends up but the position of the UK within that. I strongly believe in a free market, I strongly believe we are both a very strong import and export nation. If we start to erect any form of barriers or have difficultly trading it will I think limit our growth and future prospects”