Walk into any grocery store and you will find a whole section of the store dedicated to meat of all kinds packaged and promptly digested.
Most people don’t really know the undertaking it took to get those mouth-watering cuts (unless you’re a vegan) to their respective stores, which goes far beyond what a simple butcher could do. Demand has made way for processing factories that churn out everything from steaks to hotdogs by the tons on a daily basis.
So how do these plants work and what does it take to actually turn pigs into mouth-watering thick slabs of bacon?
The transformation of pigs into bacon begins with the slaughtering of the animal, which can happen on or off-site (no need to go into detail on how it’s done), which is then hand-cut into manageable chunks. Those pieces, in this case pork bellies, are then trimmed of their excess fat using skinning machines such as the Townsend 9000A.
The machine is outfitted with a conveyor, which sends the meat (fat side down) over a length of razor-sharp rotating blades that slices off the excess fat in large sheets. As not all pork bellies have the same amount of fat, the blades can be raised or lowered to accommodate any size thickness. The process is relatively quick (taking about a second per shave) and can process hundreds of pork bellies per day.
Once the pork slab has had its fat shaved off, it then goes down the assembly line to a professional carver who uses specialty knives to take away any ragged unwanted pieces. These knives are not your typical butcher blades but rather pneumatic air-powered cutters like Bettcher Industries Whizard Series Trimmers.
The knives function using compressed air to rotate the round razor-sharp blade to cut meat at any angle. Just like pneumatic ratchets, the blade is engaged by depressing a button and while the knives do feature protective shrouds, some have lost a finger or two during the cutting process. Some of those professional carvers don specialized metal cut-resistant gloves to protect themselves while trimming meat as it travels by on the assembly line.
Once the pork bellies are trimmed of all the unwanted materials, it then undergoes a brine injection to enhance the flavor. Most meat slabs undergo this process not only for flavor enhancement and for curing but for safety reasons as well, including E. coli and salmonella prevention.
As the pork bellies move along the conveyor system it then passes through an injection system like a Townsend’s Brine Injector, which perforates the meat and pumps the brine into it using hundreds of needles. Ever wonder how they get that smokey apple flavor (or other flavors for that matter) into some of those bacon brands? This is the step where it happens, as multiple flavorings can be injected along with the brine to enhance the taste of the meat. The brine and flavorings are stored in heated pressurized vats that constantly feed the needles through industrial-grade hoses.
After the brine and flavor bath, the pork then heads to thermal processing, where it’s cured in specialized thermally controlled rooms anywhere from 12 to 14 days. After the curing process, the pork bellies then goes through a chilling process to condense the meat before being passed through a presser that compacts the cold slab into manageable sizes for cutting.
After curing, chilling and pressing the pork bellies, they go back on the conveyor and head towards an automatic meat slicer, which transforms the pork into the recognizable strips we find at the grocers. Slicers like Cozzini’s PrimeSlice feeds the meat using a servo-driven conveyor through rotating blades that can spin up to 1,500rpms using a 5 hp motor.
As you could imagine, safety is an issue with anything that features spinning or rotating blades, so a special shroud covers the blades and can’t be opened until they come to a complete stop. Cut thickness can be programmed into the PrimeSlice, which normally breaks down with premium thick cuts first, followed by secondary cheaper cuts and finally ends and pieces, which normally are transformed into dog treats or processed salad toppings.
The final step in turning pork bellies into bacon is the packaging phase, where the tasty cuts are packaged fresh and ready for retail. After being sliced, the bacon travels down the conveyor to a packaging system like Reiser’s BPS (Bacon Packaging System), where workers place the sliced meat into a track containing the packaging’s bottom film. The meat then travels through the conveyor where the top film is heat-sealed to the bottom using a pneumatic press.
The bacon then gets stacked on pallets ready for shipping to your local grocers, where it awaits your arrival.
It turns out that ‘tasty’ does indeed have a process before being consumed in mass quantities.
Anybody want to grab a BLT?