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 in large part by the demands of Millennial consumers, the industry is tilting toward clean-label foods made with non-GMO ingredients as well as more convenient and protein-packed foods for a generation for whom snacks frequently replace meals.
These trends combined have 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. And while chips still rule the snack aisle, meat snacks currently hold second place.
Many processors are looking to capitalize on the growing demand for meat snacks. But there’s only one that’s also tapping into the bacon craze that has gripped U.S. consumers for the past few decades and shows no signs of slowing down.
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.
Most of the Pederson’s team comes from a farming or ranching background, and their mission since they started has been to make food that they’re 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.”
That’s why Pederson’s is a fully integrated company, from raw materials all the way through processing, and it’s why their line features a variety of high-quality protein sources in the natural and organic categories.
They started thinking about a fully cooked bacon product about two years ago. The goal, Cooney says, “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. “We had looked at microwaves, 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.”
Then Cooney encountered Unitherm at PACK EXPO 2014, where Unitherm Executive Chef Justin Donaldson was cooking strips of bacon in a spiral oven. “When Unitherm presented the idea for roasted bacon out of an oven rather than a microwave, we were excited.” In April 2015, a team from Pederson’s visited Unitherm’s test kitchen in Bristow, OK, to run some test products on the spiral oven.
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, which the spiral oven process helps Pederson’s build into the product. “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. However, Thedford notes, “the ideal thing is to make product so good that you don’t have to inventory it because it’s eaten.”
If early results are any indicator, Pederson’s won’t have to worry about storing too much inventory. The bacon snacks were a hit at a recent food show in Anaheim. “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.”
Pederson’s had never worked with an oven before. They needed a solution that was flexible, modular, and didn’t require extensive maintenance expertise.
They decided that the solution that would best suit their needs was a complete cook system, comprising both a spiral oven and a capacity-matched spiral chiller. The freezer is just as important as the oven, notes Cooney. “It’s just as well engineered in thought and design. We’ve collaborated extensively with Unitherm’s engineers and our refrigeration contractors to come up with a way to chill product to 40°F or even to -15°F. I don’t think we’ve even explored the tip of the iceberg of what we can do with the system.”
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.
While bacon snacks are the main product Pederson’s runs on the oven, it’s not the only one. They cook chicken, meat crumbles, bacon bits, and mini meatloaf bars that they call “Meal Makers,” as well. They also currently produce an 8-oz bacon crumble for a meal kit and are working on snack packs using different proteins.
“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. We also work frequently with Chef Donaldson. Every time we have something new come up, we talk with him. It’s valuable to have him there.”
This flexibility is especially important because Pederson’s has no market for #2 slices and their goal is to have very little waste. 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. “We have no #2 product coming out of this plant.” That includes the bacon fat, which Pederson’s currently sells 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. That includes sausage patties, meatballs, vegetarian meat alternatives, and more. This is the biggest thing for us — it opens up our possibilities for high-quality natural and organic IQF products, whether that’s snacks or meal components.”
Aside from the system’s flexibility, Cooney and Thedford appreciate its modularity, which makes the technology accessible to companies the size of Pederson’s.
“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 because we don’t have the skillsets in house. The Unitherm system is compact, the footprint allowed us to put it into a room we already had, and the support to maintain it is viable for a smaller company. The design is well thought-through and very robust. I have no doubt that these machines will be very reliable and run for a long time.”
The next time you need a quick all-natural protein snack, give one of Pederson’s bacon snack packs a try. You won’t be disappointed! If you’d like to learn more about the process, visit our Bacon page and explore our Spiral Ovens.