[Originally appeared on Food Industry Executive.]
Pederson’s Natural Farms is revolutionizing meat snacks with preservative-free, Whole30 Approved, fully cooked bacon snack packs, made using Unitherm Food Systems’ patented process for cooking bacon in a spiral oven.
Food companies today are scrambling to keep up with the latest food trends. Driven by consumer demands, the industry is tilting toward clean-label foods made with non-GMO ingredients as well as more convenient and protein-packed foods.
This has led to a meat snack boom. A Nielsen survey earlier this year found that growth in the meat snack market outpaced growth in the traditional chips market by a factor of two.
Pederson’s Natural Farms, which has been a leader in high-quality, all-natural protein products since they opened their doors in 1992, recently released a single-serving snack pack of precooked Uncured No Sugar Added Hickory Smoked Bacon. The product is paleo friendly and Whole30 Approved. It’s minimally processed, with no preservatives, no artificial ingredients, no added nitrates or nitrites, no gluten, no lactose, no MSG, and no added sweeteners. It’s healthy, delicious, and has a shelf life of 180 days, making it perfect for on-the-go snacking or tossing into an emergency kit. And it was made on a Unitherm Mini Spiral OvenTM.
Home-cooked quality in a precooked product
Pederson’s mission is to make food that their team is proud to eat. Scott Cooney, the company’s Vice President of Operations, says: “We want to produce products just like those we make at home to feed our families. In fact, we do feed our families with these products.”
They started thinking about a fully cooked bacon product about two years ago. The goal “was to make it look and taste like bacon that came out of a skillet in your house.”
The problem was that most bacon is cooked in a microwave, producing a paper-thin, unevenly cooked product that wasn’t up to Pederson’s standards. “We’d considered precooked bacon strips before,” Cooney says. “But the microwave process and the results weren’t what we were looking for. We didn’t feel that it did justice to our premium bacon. When Unitherm presented the idea for roasted bacon out of an oven rather than a microwave, we were excited.”
A team from Pederson’s visited Unitherm’s test kitchen to run some test products, and the results sealed the deal. Today, Pederson’s cooks about 1600 raw pounds of bacon per hour in their Mini Spiral Oven, giving them roughly 500 pounds of finished product.
“We take advantage of what the oven is made for: the superheated steam unit,” says Assistant Plant Manager Luke Thedford. “This is what makes the bacon crispy and makes it better than other precooked bacon products. The bacon has a roasted flavor to it, which you don’t get with a microwave process. Our snack pack provides the same quality and flavor as you’d get if you bought a pack of our raw bacon and cooked it at home.”
Another aspect of quality is the functionality. “It’s a natural product, so we can’t have preservatives,” says Thedford. “When you cook with an oven, you bring the water activity down. This extends the shelf life through the process.” Currently, the shelf life of the bacon snack pack is 180 days.
If early results are any indicator, the new product will be a success. “Everyone who picks a snack up and tries it, likes it,” says Cooney. “You can throw it into a backpack or purse and take it with you without it being refrigerated. The versatility and quality are beyond what you get with other snacks.”
A flexible complete cook line
Pederson’s needed a solution that was flexible, modular, and didn’t require extensive maintenance expertise. They decided on a complete cook system, comprising both a spiral oven and a capacity-matched spiral chiller. “[The freezer is] just as well engineered in thought and design,” notes Cooney.
They also have a packaging machine at the exit, which provides seal film with an oxygen barrier to help extend the product’s shelf life. “The entire process — from raw material to cook process, to packaging — was designed with food safety and quality in mind,” says Thedford.
In addition to bacon snacks Pederson’s uses the oven to cook a variety of products, including chicken, meat crumbles, bacon bits and crumbles, and mini meatloaf bars that they call "Meal Makers." “The oven is flexible in what you can run through it. You can steam, roast, etc., all with the touch of a button,” Thedford says. “And anything we put through there, we get out a Grade A quality product.”
This flexibility is especially important because Pederson’s has no market for #2 slices. But any bacon plant will have ends and pieces, as well as side cuts off of the pork bellies. “We can take those, grind and dice them, and make bacon crumbles,” says Cooney. They also sell the bacon fat to the manufacturer of a premium pet food product.
Finally, Cooney notes that the spiral oven “gives us the ability to have a fully cooked line that we can deliver to the consumer in an IQF format, which we haven’t had before. This is the biggest thing for us — it opens up our possibilities for high-quality natural and organic IQF products.”
A system designed for smaller manufacturers
Aside from the system’s flexibility, Cooney and Thedford appreciate its modularity, which makes the technology accessible to smaller companies.
“The oven/freezer combination from Unitherm is more modular and more standalone than some of the larger ovens available, which allows a small or medium-size company to get into a spiral oven line at a capital expenditure that’s affordable,” Cooney said. “Even if we could come up with the capital to buy a larger oven, I’m not sure we could afford to maintain it.”
The next time you need a quick all-natural protein snack, give one of Pederson’s bacon snack packs a try. If you’d like to learn more about the process, visit Unitherm’s Bacon page.