Diet and health are high up the political and social agenda right now, and bacon is under particular pressure.
Fat isn’t such an issue, since 90% of prepacked rashers bought these days are lean back cuts, rather than the fattier streaky variety.
But salt is - and the Food Standards Agency is driving to get consumers to eat less. This presents a challenge for suppliers because salt is the key ingredient in the curing that preserves the product.
The industry contends that if it was forced to cut levels of salt significantly, then microbiological integrity could be compromised.
This autumn the FSA issued its suggested voluntary targets for salt levels, proposing for bacon a maximum of 3.5g of salt per 100g of product.
The Provision Trade Federation and the British Meat Processors Association have requested that this 3.5g is accepted as an average, rather than a maximum.
PTF director general Clare Cheney says: “Salt is not always distributed evenly in bacon, so if you set a maximum you are likely to get some samples which are over the limit and others which are under. It can vary quite widely.”
The FSA does not have the authority to set limits on salt levels for foreign producers. Any attempt to influence their processes could be construed as creating a barrier to trade. But to the relief of British manufacturers, who might have been disadvantaged, fellow PTF members and rivals the Dutch and Danes have agreed to abide by the eventual agreement. This, perhaps, reflects a general realisation in the industry that while food safety is a key issue, bacon suppliers would be foolish to ignore the undercurrent of concern about health that is reflected in the FSA’s salt campaign.
Nigel Glendinning, marketing controller for bacon at Grampian Country Food Group, says: “No matter what the regulations say, we have to be pragmatic. And we have to look at what opportunities there are to bring down salt levels gradually.
“It won’t be to the extent as in some other sectors, and we’re talking about small margins here.
“But health is a mega trend that we can’t ignore. If we do, consumers will just walk away from bacon.”
And cutting salt needn’t affect the taste, says David Abbott, boss of cooked bacon maker TMI Foods.
“The secret of maintaining the traditional bacon taste lies in careful curing techniques,” he says.