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Battle Brewing Over Process for Pre-Cooked, Sliced Bacon that Looks Pan-Fried

11 December 2014

Unitherm Food Systems files lawsuit against Hormel in United States District Court in Minnesota.

Unitherm Food Systems, a manufacturer of food processing equipment including large commercial ovens for cooking meat, has filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court in Minnesota against Hormel Foods Corporation and Hormel Food Corporate Services.  According to a blog article in the Minnesota Litigator, the core of the complaint is a dispute over a unique cooking process that “cracks the code” on how to create pre-cooked sliced bacon that looks pan-fried.

The article, written by Seth Leventhal and entitled “Code-cracking Crackling Pre-cooked Bacon: Unitherm v. Hormel” was posted on October 17, 2014.

The suit alleges that Unitherm and its president, David Howard, developed a unique process for preparing pre-cooked sliced bacon using continuously fed spiral ovens and super-heated vapor to fully cook bacon that resembles a pan-fried product – only to have confidential information about the process disclosed by Hormel to a competitor and then later used without the authorization of Unitherm by Hormel to create its product “BACON 1, perfectly cooked bacon.”  

Prior to the Unitherm process, bacon was pre-cooked sliced bacon was typically fully cooked in a microwave oven, a belt grill, or a linear oven.  Bacon cooked by other techniques is often flat and dull in color, whereas the spiral oven produces wavy, natural-looking slices.  

In Unitherm’s pre-cooked sliced bacon process, spiral ovens convey food upward by continuous conveyor belt that travel in multiple, circular tiers within a single oven enclosure. Steam – or superheated steam – is used to create a high moisture environment within the cooking chamber.  

As bacon products cycle upward through the spiral oven, fat is rendered from the ascending meat and is dispersed onto the bacon on the lower belt tiers. In this manner, the bacon is basted and cooked in its own juices, providing the taste, aroma and appearance of a traditional, pan-fried product.

The suit alleges that the two companies, which have an extensive working relationship together, met in June of 2007 to discuss Unitherm’s new process.  Hormel then entered into a confidential non-disclosure agreement to facilitate the sharing of the details and also later agreed to a Joint Development Agreement.  

As part of that agreement, Hormel granted Unitherm a 5-year exclusive right to sell goods and services to Hormel regarding the pre-cooked bacon process, with a renewal term upon “good faith negotiation.”  During that time, Unitherm claims they turned away business from other companies interested in the process.
The suit claims that unbeknownst and without the consent of Unitherm, Hormel disclosed certain confidential details of the process to a competitor.  Hormel took immediate action to remedy the disclosure, according to the suit.

On January 11, 2008 Unitherm filed for a patent for the pre-cooked sliced bacon process.  The application was published by the U.S. Patent Office on July 6, 2009.  However, the competitor also filed a patent application on October 24, 2008, which included confidential information that had been disclosed to them by Hormel.

Then, on April 1, 2010 Hormel abruptly and without the required notice announced that the project was not producing a viable result and was terminating the agreement.  In the suit, Unitherm claims that Hormel led them to believe they had no further interest in pursuing the spiral oven design for producing pre-cooked sliced bacon.

Only 16 weeks later, Hormel filed for its own patent.  According to Unitherm, they later discovered the company was planning on marketing and selling products including the company’s “BACON 1, perfectly cooked bacon” product that is derived from the process using spiral ovens.

Unitherm is seeking monetary damages and equitable relief.

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