Bacon and Food Safety
It’s the “B” in a BLT sandwich, the star of
breakfast buffets, the garnish on a spinach salad, and the “pork” in
pork-and-beans. Bacon imparts a smoky flavor to innumerable dishes.
This ancient, cured meat now appears in such modern forms as
shelf-stable or refrigerated fully cooked strips, bacon made from
turkey and/or beef, and meats certified as organic.
History of Bacon
Bacon has an ancient history. The domestication of “pigs” (immature
hogs) for food dates back to about 7000 B.C. in the Middle East. Some
historians say that bacon made from hogs was a favorite of the early
Romans and Greeks. About 500 years ago, bacon or bacoun (a Middle
English term) referred to all pork. The term derived from bako
(French), bakkon (Germanic), and backe (Old Teutonic) that refer to the
“back” of the hog.
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European peasants in the 1500’s couldn’t afford to buy pork often. It
was a sign of affluence if a man could “bring home the bacon.” They
would cut off some for guests and sit around “chewing the fat,” now a
colloquial term for “having a discussion.” The term “bringing home the
bacon” now means “earning a living” or “being successful.”
Bacon is made in many countries of the world. In Germany, it is called
speck; Netherlands, spek; France, lard or bacon; Italy, pancetta; and
Spain, tocino or tocineta. It can be made from several different animal
species including pork, turkey, and beef. Bacon can also be made from
various parts of an animal; thus, its appearance can vary.
What is bacon?
The term “bacon” is used to describe the cured belly of a swine (hog)
carcass. If meat from other portions of the carcass is used, the
product name must identify the portions where the bacon comes from,
e.g., “Pork Shoulder Bacon.” Bacon is generally produced from young
animals (6 to 7 months old) that weigh between 175 to 240 pounds.
Pork bacon without any other descriptors is raw (uncooked) and must be
cooked before eating. Most bacon sold in the United States is “streaky”
bacon, long narrow slices cut crosswise from the hog belly that contain
veins of pink meat within white fat. Unless otherwise noted, the
information in this publication refers to “streaky” bacon.
In addition to “streaky” bacon, other U.S. favorites are American-style
Canadian bacon (round slices of pink meat from the loin), turkey bacon
made from light and dark turkey meat, and beef bacon prepared from
various beef cuts. See the “Glossary of Bacon Terms” (found at the end
of this publication) for definitions.
How is bacon made?
Several steps are involved in producing sliced bacon. First each pork
belly is skinned and any ragged edges trimmed. After curing with salt
and nitrite, the pork bellies are heat processed. Mass-produced bacon
is heat processed in large convection ovens. It is much faster to mass
produce bacon using a convection oven (as little as 6 hours) than by
traditional smoking (many days).
Bacon receives its smoke flavor from natural smoke obtained by
smoldering wood chips or by spraying the bacon with a liquid smoke
After heat processing and smoking, the bacon must be chilled to below
40 °F before it is sliced. The majority of bacon is sliced before
packaging. Because of the added salt and nitrite, bacon is far less
perishable than other raw meat products. Even so, the chilling is done
quickly to prevent bacterial growth and promote its shelf-life.
According to FSIS regulations, the weight of cured pork bellies that
are ready for slicing and labeling as “bacon” shall not exceed the
weight of the fresh, uncured pork bellies.
What are the methods of curing bacon?
There are two primary methods of curing bacon: pumping and dry curing.
Although less frequently used, FSIS still receives label applications
for immersion-cured bacon.
“Pumped” bacon has curing ingredients that are injected directly into
the meat to speed up the curing process and add bulk. This type of
mass-produced bacon is held for curing for 6 to 24 hours before being
heated. If not properly drained, pumped bacon can exude white liquid
“Dry-cured” bacon has a premeasured amount of cure mixture applied or
rubbed onto the bacon belly surfaces, completely covering them.
Additional cure may be rubbed in over a number of days, but the amount
of added sodium nitrite cannot exceed 200 parts per million (ppm).
After the curing phase, the bacon may be left to hang for up to 2 weeks
in order for the moisture to be drawn out. Less time is needed if it is
going to be smoked. Because of the lengthy processing time and labor
required, dry-cured bacon is more expensive than the more
mass-produced, pumped bacon.
“Immersion-cured” bacon is placed in a brine solution containing salt,
nitrite, and flavoring material or in a container with salt, nitrite,
and flavoring material for 2 to 3 days. Sugar, honey, or maple syrup
may be added to the brine. The meat must then be left to hang until it
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How is cooked bacon made shelf stable?
To make bacon safe to store at room temperature (shelf stable), it is
precooked in the plant to have a water activity at or below 0.85 to
control Staphylococcus aureus. The cooked yield is 40% of the raw weight.
Is bacon “red” meat?
“Bacon” can only be made from pork bellies, which are red meat by
definition. Pork is classified as “livestock,” and all livestock are
considered “red meat.” Bacon can also be made from other species of
livestock (e.g., beef) and poultry (e.g., turkey). These types of bacon
products require a descriptive name such as, “Beef Bacon-Cured and
Smoked Beef Plate” and “Turkey Bacon-Cured Turkey Thigh Meat.”
Is “salt pork” the same as bacon?
Salt pork is not bacon. Although it is salted, it is much fattier, and,
unlike bacon, it is not smoked. It is generally cut from the hog’s
belly or side. Because salt pork is so salty, cooks often blanch or
soak it to extract some of the salt before using.
Does bacon contain additives?
Yes. Bacon is made with salt as a curing agent, and nitrite (but not
nitrate) is the other most frequently used additive. Bacon may also
contain other additives such as sugars, maple sugar, wood smoke,
flavorings, and spices. Pumped bacon (see above) must also contain
either ascorbate or sodium erythorbate (isoascorbate), which greatly
reduces the formation of nitrosamines by accelerating the reaction of
nitrite with the meat.
At certain levels, salt prevents the growth of some types of bacteria
that spoil meat. Salt prevents bacterial growth either by directly
inhibiting it or by its drying effect. Most bacteria require
substantial amounts of moisture to live and grow.
Sodium nitrite produces the pink color (nitrosohemoglobin) in cured bacon. Nitrite also greatly delays the development of the Clostridium botulinum
toxin (botulism); develops a cured-meat flavor; retards the development
of rancidity, off-odors, and off-flavors during storage; and inhibits
the development of a warmed-over flavor.
Sugar is added to reduce the harshness of salt. Spices and other
flavorings are often added to achieve a characteristic “brand” flavor.
Most, but not all, cured meat products are smoked after the curing
process to impart a smoked meat flavor.
What are nitrosamines and what cooking methods minimize their formation?
Under certain conditions not yet fully understood, the products from
the natural breakdown of proteins known as “amines” can combine with
nitrites to form compounds known as “nitrosamines.” There are many
different types of nitrosamines, most of which are known carcinogens in
Not all cured meat products contain nitrosamines; however, when
present, they usually are in very minute amounts. Many variables
influence nitrosamine levels: amount of nitrite added during
processing, concentrations of amines in meat, type and amounts of other
ingredients used in processing, actual processing conditions, length of
storage, storage temperatures, method of cooking, and degree of
Researchers found that the addition of vitamin C (also known as ascorbate) and
vitamin E (also known as tocopherol) reduced the levels of nitrosamines
in fried bacon and in nitrite-cured products. The findings led to
changes in Federal regulations and industry processing to minimize
consumer exposure to nitrosamines. USDA now requires adding 550 ppm
(parts per million) of either sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate to
pumped bacon. This addition greatly reduces the amount of free nitrite
and, thus, minimizes the formation of nitrosamines. This regulation is
found in 9 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 424.22 (b)(1).
A bacon cooking study, “Effect of Frying and Other Cooking Conditions
on Nitrosopyrrolidine Formation in Bacon” (Journal of Science, Vol. 39,
pages 314-316), showed no evidence of nitrosamines in bacon fried at
210 °F for 10 minutes (raw), 210 °F for 15 minutes (medium well), 275
°F for 10 minutes (very light), or 275 °F for 30 minutes (medium well).
But when bacon was fried at 350 °F for 6 minutes (medium well), 400 °F
for 4 minutes (medium well), or 400 °F for 10 minutes (burned), some
nitrosamines were found. Thus, well-done or burned bacon is potentially
more hazardous than less well-done bacon. Also, bacon cooked by a
microwave has less nitrosamine than fried bacon.
How much nitrite can be used in curing bacon?
The USDA is responsible for monitoring the proper use of nitrite by
meat processors. While sodium nitrite cannot exceed 200 ppm going into
dry-cured bacon, sodium nitrite cannot exceed 120 ppm for both pumped
and immersion-cured bacon.
Can bacon be made without the use of nitrite?
Bacon can be manufactured without the use of nitrite, but must be
labeled “Uncured Bacon, No Nitrates or Nitrites added” and bear the
statement “Not Preserved, Keep Refrigerated Below 40 °F At All Times” —
unless the final product has been dried according to USDA regulations,
or if the product contains an amount of salt sufficient to achieve an
internal brine concentration of 10% or more, the label does not have to
carry the handle statement of “Not Preserved, Keep Refrigerated below
___” etc. Recent research studies have shown for products labeled as
uncured, certain ingredients added during formulation can naturally
produce small amounts of nitrates in bacon and, therefore, have to be
labeled with the explanatory statement “no nitrates or nitrites added
except for those naturally occurring in ingredients such as celery
juice powder, parsley, cherry powder, beet powder, spinach, sea salt
Is bacon inspected and graded?
All bacon found in retail stores is either USDA inspected for
wholesomeness or inspected by State systems that have standards equal
to the Federal government. Each animal, from which the bacon is made,
is inspected for signs of disease. The “Inspected and Passed by USDA”
seal ensures the bacon is wholesome.
Bacon is not graded.
Can hormones and antibiotics be used in pork from which bacon is made?
No hormones are used in the raising of hogs. Hormones are not permitted
in pork by Federal regulations; therefore, bacon cannot have added
Antibiotics may be given to prevent or treat disease in hogs. A
“withdrawal” period is required from the time antibiotics are
administered until it is legal to slaughter the animal. This is so
residues can exit the animal’s system and won’t be in the meat.
FSIS randomly samples pork at slaughter and tests for residues. Data
from this monitoring program have shown a very low percentage of
What foodborne organisms are associated with pork?
Pork, like other raw animal muscle foods, frequently contains bacterial
pathogens. Some other foodborne pathogenic microorganisms that can be
found in pork, as well as other meats and poultry, are Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Toxoplasmosis gondii, Campylobacter, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Listeria monocytogenes. They are all destroyed by cooking
Humans may contract trichinosis (caused by the parasite, Trichinella spiralis)
by eating undercooked pork. Much progress has been made in reducing
trichinosis in grain-fed hogs, and cases in humans have greatly
declined since 1950.
Can the term “natural” be used on bacon?
Yes, bacon can be labeled as “natural” if the bacon is “uncured.” This
means the bacon does not contain nitrites or nitrates as direct
additive curing agents. Therefore, the bacon would meet the definition
for “natural” (minimally processed, no artificial ingredients) and can
be labeled as “Natural* Uncured Bacon (No Nitrates or Nitrites Added,
Not Preserved, Keep Below 40 °F At All Times), *Minimally Processed, No
Can the term “organic” be used on bacon?
Yes, if the bacon is made from certified organic meat or poultry, the bacon can be labeled “organic.”
Is a nutrition facts panel required on bacon?
Generally, a nutrition facts panel is required on both cooked and raw bacon products.
Is a safe handling label required on bacon?
Yes, FSIS requires safe handling instructions on packages of bacon and
all other raw or partially cooked meat and poultry products as part of
a comprehensive effort to protect consumers from foodborne illness.
Can turkey bacon contain pork?
Yes, it is possible for turkey bacon to contain pork, but it must be
included on the label (either in the name or in the ingredients
statement). All ingredients used in the manufacture of a meat product
must be listed in the ingredient statement on the package.
Are “bacon bits” made from pork?
“Bacon bits” are made from 100% real bacon. These products are
inspected by USDA. The label and ingredient statement on the jars and
resealable pouches will display the product information. For
comparison, 1 tablespoon of real bacon bits is equivalent to 1 1/2
strips of bacon.
Imitation products are made from a soy-based product that have a bacon
texture and flavor, but are kosher and vegetarian. Soy-based products
are inspected by FDA. Companies should not be using the term “bacon” on
products not made from pork bellies.
Dating of Bacon
Product dating (i.e., applying “sell-by” or “use-by” dates) is not
required by Federal regulations. However, many stores and processors
may voluntarily choose to date packages of bacon. Use or freeze
products with a “sell-by” date within 7 days of purchase. If the
manufacturer has determined a “use-by” date, observe it. It’s always
best to buy a product before its date expires. It’s not important if a
date expires after freezing bacon because all foods stay safe while
What should you look for when buying bacon?
When buying bacon, look for slices with long veins of lean pink meat
and a relatively small amount of fat. If the package bears an
expiration date, purchase the package before the date expires.
Should bacon be rinsed before cooking?
Washing raw bacon before cooking it is not recommended. Any bacteria
that might be present on the surface would be destroyed by cooking.
How to Handle Bacon Safely
- Select the bacon just before checking out at the supermarket register.
- Take the bacon home immediately and refrigerate it at 40 °F or below.
- Use within 7 days or freeze (0 °F).
COOKED BACON PRODUCTS
- Read the product label for handling instructions.
- For refrigerated, cooked bacon, select it just before checking out at the supermarket register.
- Take the bacon home immediately and refrigerate it at 40 °F or below.
- For shelf-stable, cooked bacon, store the product at 85 °F or below. Refrigerate after opening.
- Observe the manufacturer’s recommended “use-by” date.
How to Thaw Bacon Safely
There are three safe ways to thaw bacon: in the refrigerator, in cold
water, and in the microwave. Never defrost bacon on the kitchen counter
or at room temperature.
In the Refrigerator: It’s best to plan ahead
for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. After defrosting bacon by
this method, it will be safe in the refrigerator for 7 days before
cooking. If you decide not to use the bacon during this time, you can
safely refreeze it without cooking it first.
In Cold Water: This method is faster than
refrigerator thawing. The food must be in a leak-proof package or
plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding
environment could be introduced into the food. Also, the bacon may
absorb water, resulting in a watery product. Submerge the bag in cold
tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw.
A one-pound package of bacon may thaw in an hour or less. If thawed
completely, the food must be cooked immediately.
In the Microwave: When thawing bacon in the
microwave, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas
of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.
Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria
present will not be destroyed.
Foods defrosted in the microwave or by the cold water method should be
cooked before refreezing because they may have been held at
temperatures above 40 °F, where bacteria can multiply.
It is safe to cook bacon from the frozen state.
To what temperature should bacon be cooked?
It’s very difficult to determine the temperature of a thin piece of
meat such as bacon, but if cooked crisp, it should have reached a safe
temperature. Cooked, cured meat such as bacon can remain pink due to
its curing agents, even when the meat has reached a safe temperature.
Never brown or partially cook raw bacon and then refrigerate to finish
cooking later. This is because any bacteria present will not be
destroyed. Cook bacon completely before removing it from the heat
The three main ways to cook bacon are in a skillet or pan on the stove,
in a conventional oven, or in the microwave. The length of time to cook
bacon depends upon the type and thickness of the bacon, the heat used,
and the desired crispness.
How can precooked bacon be reheated?
While it is safe to eat precooked bacon from the package, you may
desire to reheat it. To reheat, follow the package directions or place
the strips on a microwave-safe plate or a paper towel and microwave for
about 10 seconds per strip
HOME STORAGE OF BACON PRODUCTS
These short, but safe, time limits compiled from a variety of sources
will help keep refrigerated bacon from spoiling or becoming dangerous
to eat. Because freezing keeps food safe indefinitely, recommended
storage times are for quality only.
PRODUCT PANTRY REFRIGERATOR 40 °F or below FREEZER 0 °F or below Salt pork Not applicable (N/A) 1 month 4 to 6 months Bacon N/A 7 days 4 months Beef bacon N/A 7 days 4 months Canadian bacon, sliced N/A 3 to 4 days 4 to 8 weeks Poultry bacon N/A 7 days 4 months Pancetta N/A 7 days 4 months Dry-cured sliced bacon 10 days without refrigeration 4 weeks in the refrigerator 3 months Dry-cured slab bacon 3 weeks without refrigeration 4 to 6 weeks in the refrigerator 3 months Bacon cured without nitrites N/A 3 weeks in the refrigerator 6 months Leftover cooked bacon, cooked by consumer N/A 4 to 5 days 1 month Baby food with fresh bacon Observe “use-by” date. 2 to 3 days after opening (leftovers not heated) 1 month Cooked bacon, purchased shelf stable Unopened in the pantry (stored below 85 °F) until the “use-by” date on the package After opening, refrigerate and use within 5 to 14 days. See product package for specific recommendations. 3 months Cooked bacon, purchased refrigerated Observe manufacturer’s “use-by” date. Observe manufacturer’s “use-by” date. 3 months for best quality Canned bacon in pantry 2 to 5 years in pantry 3 to 4 days after opening 2 to 3 months after opening Bacon bits, made with real bacon Unopened in pantry, good until “sell-by” date After opening, refrigerate up to 6 weeks. 1 to 2 months Imitation bacon bits (made with soy) 4 months in pantry Refer to jar for refrigerator storage. Not necessary for safety. GLOSSARY OF BACON TERMS
BABY FOOD WITH FRESH BACON: Bacon without nitrites
must be shown in the ingredients statement as bacon (water, salt,
sugar, etc., without nitrates or nitrites). Nitrites and nitrates are
not acceptable in baby and toddler foods. (Nitrate is prohibited in all
BACK BACON (United Kingdom): Most bacon consumed in
the U.K. is back bacon (also called short back bacon). The cut comes
from the loin in the middle of the back of the animal. It is a lean,
meaty cut of bacon, with relatively less fat compared to other cuts.
BACK RASHERS (Irish): Pork bacon made from the meat on the back of the pig. This type of bacon is part of a traditional Irish breakfast.
BACON: The cured belly of a swine (hog) carcass. If
meat from other portions of the carcass is used, the product name must
be qualified to identify the portions, e.g., “Pork Shoulder Bacon.”
BACON AND PORK SAUSAGE: Product is formulated with a high percentage of bacon (usually bacon ends and pieces) with at least 20% pork.
BACON ARKANSAS and ARKANSAS STYLE BACON: Product which
is identified as “Arkansas Bacon” or “Arkansas Style Bacon” is produced
from the pork shoulder blade Boston roast. The pork shoulder blade
Boston roast includes the porcine muscle, fat, and bone; cut interior
of the second or third thoracic vertebra; posterior of the atlas joint
(first cervical vertebra); and dorsal of the center of the humerus bone.
For “Arkansas Bacon,” the neck bones and rib bones are removed by
cutting close to the underside of those bones. The blade bone (scapula)
and the dorsal fat covering, including the skin (clear plate), are
removed, leaving no more than one-quarter inch of fat covering the
roast. The meat is then dry cured with salt, sugar, nitrites, and
spices, and smoked with natural smoke.
The meat may not be injected or soaked in curing brine, nor may any
artificial or liquid smoke be applied to the meat. Product that is
prepared outside the state of Arkansas, but in the manner prescribed,
may be identified as “Arkansas Style Bacon.” The true product name must
be shown as “Boneless Cured Pork Shoulder Butt.”
BACON (CANNED – PASTEURIZED): A shelf-stable item, which must have at least 7% brine concentration.
BACON (COOKED): Not to yield more than 40% bacon – 60%
shrink required. BHA and BHT may be used as antioxidants in precooked
bacon at level of 0.01% individually or 0.02% collectively, based on
fat content. TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone) can be used in products
as an antioxidant (reduces the damage from oxygen) in combination with
the preservatives BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated
hydroxyanisole), but it can not be used alone except in cooked bacon.
BACON-LIKE PRODUCTS: Bacon-like products, including
poultry bacon, labeled with “bacon” in the name must follow the same
requirements as those applied to pork bacon. These requirements
include, but are limited to, limits on restricted ingredients and the
requirement that the bacon must return to “green weight” (see below).
BACON PRODUCTS: The bacon products intended for
further cooking before consumption, i.e., slab bacon for deli slicing,
can be labeled “certified,” “roasted,” or “partially cooked” provided
the product is cooked to 148 °F and the labeling clearly indicates the
product is intended to be further cooked before consumption.
BEEF BACON: Beef bacon is a cured and smoked beef
product sliced to resemble regular bacon. It is prepared from various
beef cuts and offered with a variety of coined names, including
“Breakfast Beef,” “Beef Bacon,” etc. A common or usual name is
required, e.g., “Cured and Smoked Beef Plate,” and should be shown
contiguous to the coined name.
CANADIAN BACON: In the United States, “Canadian” bacon
is plain lean “back bacon” (see above) made from the loin, and it is
trichina treated. It is simply called “back bacon” in Canada, where
“Canadian bacon” is traditionally unsmoked back bacon that has been
sweet pickle cured and coated in yellow cornmeal. This variation is
also known as peameal bacon, because, in times past, a mixture of
ground yellow peas was used for coating to improve curing and
CERTIFIED: If pork is treated to eliminate Trichinella spiralis,
and the processing company demonstrates that viable trichinae have been
destroyed or rendered ineffective in causing infection, the resulting
pork can be labeled as “certified pork.”
DIXIE BACON or DIXIE SQUARE: Bacon made from cured and
smoked cheeks of pork. The true product name, e.g., “Pork Jowl Dixie
Bacon, Cured and Smoked” shall appear on the label.
FINISHED WEIGHT: The final weight of cured pork
bellies after processing. The weight of cured pork bellies ready for
slicing and labeling as “Bacon” shall not exceed the weight of the
fresh, uncured pork bellies (green weight).
GREEN WEIGHT: The weight of fresh pork bellies, normally skinned and trimmed, prior to pumping with curing solution.
ORGANIC BACON: Bacon can be certified organic if made from organically raised meat or poultry.
PANCETTA (pan-CHET-uh): Italian streaky bacon, smoked
or green (unsmoked), with a strong flavor. It is usually cured in salt
and spices and then air-dried. The name is diminutive of pancia,
POULTRY BACON: Poultry bacon products are acceptable
and may be designated as (Kind) Bacon. However, a true descriptive name
must appear contiguous to (Kind) Bacon without intervening type or
design, in letters at least one-half the size of the letters used in
the (Kind) Bacon, and in the same style and color and on the same
background. An example of an acceptable designation is “Turkey Bacon –
Cured Turkey Breast Meat – Chopped and Formed.” The descriptive name
can serve alone as the product name. If poultry bacon is cooked and
ready to eat from the package, the label will have statements such as
“fully cooked” or “ready to eat.” If poultry bacon is not ready to eat,
it is required to bear safe handling instructions.
STREAKY BACON: The name for North American bacon in
the United Kingdom and Ireland. It comes from the belly of a pig and is
very fatty with long veins of fat running parallel to the rind. It is
also called “streaky rashers.”
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