Of all of the major meat types, pork has generally been one of the most heavily processed meat products. During the 19th century, each individual farmer and packinghouse had their own recipe for curing, smoking and preserving hams and bacon. Pork barrels were common sights in farm basements where pork bellies were immersed in solutions of salt, sugar and spices to cure. By 1880 – before refrigeration was widely available – pork was the preeminent meat on American tables, and half of all pork was consumed in the form of ham or bacon. In fact, ham and bacon alone amounted to more than the entire national consumption of beef.
By the middle of the 20th century, refrigerated beef had overtaken pork consumption, but pork was still a robust second place. During this time, there was a dynamic push and pull between consumer desires, research into healthy diets, and new technologies in the producing and packing industries.
For instance, packinghouses in the 50s were on a quest for new machines to process the meat and reduce labor costs. But, despite extensive breeding programs, hogs obstinately kept arriving at the slaughterhouse in varying sizes. Human beings were still needed for the infinitely variable tasks of cutting the meat from the bones and into specific cuts of meat.
For a time, packinghouses tried to speed up the time it took to cure hams and bacon. Different chemical solutions were mechanically injected into the meat. But many of these processes were rejected by consumers because of changes in taste or consistence of the meat.
Bacon, however, went through major changes in the 20th century. In the 1920s, lower class consumers in the South ate most of the bacon produced, in part because they cured it themselves. Commercial bacon was more expensive than round steak. The pork companies began to advertise bacon as a flavorful addition to any meal. By the 1950s, they had figured out how to cure and slice the product efficiently and sell it in new plastic vacuum packages that greatly extended the shelf life of the meat.
By 1960s, bacon was 65-cents a pound, 20-cents cheaper than round steak. That year 60 percent of all U.S. families bought bacon, and the higher income groups were the most likely to buyit.
About this same time, consumers began to be concerned about the fat content of all meat, and pork in particular. Pork farmers responded fairly quickly, in part because hogs can be produced more quickly than cattle.
Terry Schrick served as executive secretary of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association for 30 years between 1968 and 1998. In that time, he saw profound changes in the types of hogs that producers bred and raised. “During the war, [the packers] wanted a very fat animal,” Terry says. But by the 1950s, “we’re trying to lean those animals up… We had animals in the 60s and early 70s, some of them weighed 190 pounds and they still had that loin and ham that we needed.”
However, the packinghouses then began to realize that it took them as much effort to kill and process a 300-pound hog as a 200-pound one. So, they began pushing the farmers to grow them bigger so the packers could have more product to sell.
Caught between the desires of the consumer and the needs of the packer, only the largest pig farmers could stay profitable. “The packer has put so many of our people out of business,” Terry says, “Just boom, boom, boom, because they cannot compete.”