ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bacon is no longer just a side dish for eggs – you’ll find it in ice cream, sushi and sprinkled on chocolate-chip cookies.
And Americans’ hunger for bacon is putting the sizzle in the cost.
The price of the popular cured meat has risen at more than three times the rate of inflation since 2008, the most of any meat, according to government price trackers.
“It gets bigger and bigger every year,” Alex Suniga, a manager at Keller’s in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, said of customer interest.
Western drought has made feed for pigs more expensive, contributing to soaring prices and an unprecedented virus has killed about 7 million piglets since 2013, trimming the nation’s pork supply by almost 12 percent, said John Green, director of marketing for the National Pork Board.
“Our supply is static since it takes nine months to make a pig,” Green said. “That’s troublesome since the real drive in bacon right now is consumer demand.”
In June, shoppers paid $6.11 on average for a pound of sliced bacon in grocery stores, a record high, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four years earlier, the average price was $4.05 a pound.
Suniga said he’s seen a bacon boom during his 20 years at the store.
“It’s a little bit funny because not only do we sell smoked bacon, but what’s starting to get real popular is the fresh side – the pork belly that has not been cured or smoked, just sliced into quarter-inch pieces,” he said.
Some cost-conscious customers have found an alternative in beef bacon, he added. Keller’s sells it for $6.58 per pound.
Ben Nelson of Nelson’s Meats said customers at his family-owned market on Old Coors in Albuquerque haven’t shown increased demand for bacon but that he’s seen enough restaurant commercials for bacon-topped burgers to know interest in the pork product has spiked.
He said bacon prices were “high to begin with” when a hog virus this summer caused pork costs to shoot up across the board. But Nelson’s recently was able to lower the price on a pound of bacon to $5.59, and Nelson hopes it’s headed down further.
“It’s still high, don’t get me wrong,” he said, “but I’ve seen some relief on my futures already.”
Despite the soaring prices, bacon sales climbed 9.5 percent to a record $4 billion in 2013, according to Information Resources Inc., a market research firm.
Bacon is deeply embedded in American culture and has taken on the status of comfort food, said Ari Weinzweig, author of “Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon.”
“It reminds us of childhood,” he said.
Restaurants are weaving bacon into menus in more unusual ways to encourage a little impulse eating, Green said.
The salty meat can be found in the potato-bacon terrine at Wolfgang Puck’s Beverly Hills restaurant, Spago, and in Denny’s maple bacon milkshake.
Breakfast giant IHOP has amped up its bacon offerings, too.
Since 2010, the chain has added 23 menu items that incorporated bacon, “everything from bacon crepes to salads,” said Marie Grimm, IHOP’s vice president of culinary innovation.
And an industry first: a bacon-and-cheddar-cheese-infused waffle.
Bacon’s soaring prices are putting a crunch on fast-food chains, where bacon dishes account for 30 to 50 percent of menu items at popular chains such as Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s and Jack in the Box.
Drivers ordering bacon-topped burgers at drive-through windows will pay nearly $5 on average, the unofficial ceiling on fast-food burgers, according to SpenDifference, a restaurant supply chain co-op in Denver. Its recent restaurant chain survey showed that 93 percent of the 60 chains interviewed planned to raise prices during the second half of this year.
In 2002, a Carl’s Jr. bacon cheeseburger cost $1.39. By 2013, it cost $3.29 through the double whammy of beef and bacon price increases.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.