Popping the American Bacon Bubble

Americans love their bacon -- now more than ever, it seems. There are bacon bouquets (or broquets), bacon-topped cupcakes, bacon soap, bacon-flavored mints, and bacon lip balm. (Just plug "weird bacon products" into a search engine and you could be overwhelmed by the results.)

And now comes a rumored new menu item from Burger King: the bacon sundae. The bizarre concoction being tested in the Nashville market consists of vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate and caramel syrup and, apparently, sporting a strip of bacon as the proverbial cherry on top.

Even if this Burger King menu addition is simply a local eccentricity or a publicity stunt, it speaks to the current American bacon obsession. Burger King isn't even the first to dream up the taste sensation of ice cream and bacon. According to Time.com, Denny's (Nasdaq: DENN  ) offered a bacon maple sundae last year, and if you've got a hankering for a bacon-flavored milkshake, Jack in the Box (Nasdaq: JACK  ) tried that in its "Marry Bacon" ad campaign launched during the Super Bowl.

Americans haven't quite gotten to the point where they're bidding up bacon like the Dutch did tulips during the height of Tulipmania, but bacon's obsessive mindshare certainly seems pretty impressive these days. (There's even a blogger who goes by the moniker Mr. Bacon Pants who tracks all things bacon, including the price of pork bellies.)

In early April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that supplies of pork bellies had risen, indicating falling bacon prices, so bacon lovers can breathe a sigh of relief at the checkout.

However there's a far higher cost associated with bacon than the figure on the checkout receipt.

The sad side of the bacon bubble
There's a reason our bacon prices are for the most part relatively cheap despite Americans' bubbly attitude toward the meat, and it's not pleasant.

Millions of factory-farmed breeding sows are confined to gestation crates, which capture the creatures for their entire lives; these crates don't even give the animals enough room to turn around. This practice results in serious welfare issues, such as urinary tract infections, weak bones, overgrown hooves, and lameness.

The Humane Society of the United States, or HSUS, has waged many campaigns against major companies regarding the use of the crates, which animal welfare expert Temple Grandin has called "a real problem" that "have to go."

The Humane Society's efforts have been panning out. Spam maker Hormel (NYSE: HRL  ) and pork producer Tyson (NYSE: TSN  ) have announced plans to phase out the crates by 2017. Cargill is already 50% free of gestation crates. In February, fast-food giant McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) stopped dragging its feet on the issue and vowed to push its pork suppliers to phase out the crates, too.

The HSUS has also recently taken issue with the National Pork Producers Council, calling shenanigans and complaining to the Federal Trade Commission that the council is using deceptive advertising regarding its animal well-being policies. Among the statements the HSUS takes issue with is the council's claim that its "Pork Quality Assurance Plus" program helps to "ensure that all animals in the pork industry continue to receive humane care and handling."

This may all sound like propaganda against eating pork, but many pig cognition studies show that the animals are smart and social -- much like with primates, pigs' social life and food gathering have helped their evolutionary development of smarts. Pigs are very good at catching on to new routines, can do impressive tricks like jumping through hoops and opening and closing cages, and they can even herd their barnyard friends the sheep.

Popping the bacon bubble
Granted, bacon is tasty, but there's something to be said for being mindful of exactly what one is eating and how it came to be on the plate for a particular price. Think beyond bacon-sprinkled ice cream sundaes -- as investors and consumers, let's applaud the companies that are starting to ensure that the animals didn't lead horrible lives before they ended up on the wrong end of the ice cream social.

Even better, paying higher prices to support farmers that let the pigs run free and be the social creatures they intrinsically are is a great idea, too. When cruelty's part of the farming process, it's time to ask: At what cost come our much-adored bacon strips?

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of McDonald's. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (7)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 27, 2012, at 11:37 AM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    My last roommate was a big-time local and humane food activist. She taught me how important it is to know where your food comes from. You very literally are what you eat.

  • Report this Comment On April 27, 2012, at 2:05 PM, miclane05 wrote:

    I've read at least 2 or 3 articles on this site since '05 and out of that sampling of over 1,000 articles, this easily ranks as one of the worst and least informative. Its published here on this great website about finances and investing and yet, the article is little more than a fluff piece wholly unrelated to those topics.

    Alyce, you've written some great articles and I'm not trying to be mean here, but this article just doesn't go anywhere. Americans love bacon, pork belly futures are down, and most pigs live in cages. Now what? Is socially responsible farming growing in a way that we, as investors, can focus on? Can we identify the successes of early adopters? Or are we simply left with a reminder to buy cage-free bacon if possible, just as we should "buy local" "buy american" or "support fair trade coffee"

    Like I said before, I love this site and enjoy your articles, this one just left me wanting a lot more.

  • Report this Comment On April 27, 2012, at 2:06 PM, miclane05 wrote:

    I meant 2-3 articles each week, not total.

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