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 (NAS: DENN) offered a bacon maple sundae last year, and if you've got a hankering for a bacon-flavored milkshake, Jack in the Box (NAS: 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 (NYS: HRL) and pork producer Tyson (NYS: 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 (NYS: 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?

At the time thisarticle was published Alyce Lomaxdoes not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of McDonald's. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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