Bacon is cured and smoked, so do you absolutely have to cook it?
The other day, my colleague tried to convince me that I could eat raw bacon. His logic? Bacon is cured, like deli ham, and you can eat deli ham without cooking it, so why do you need to cook bacon? I, however, was horrified, and starting having horrible thoughts of roundworm-induced gastrointestinal distress. I quickly realized that we're not the only people having this debate about raw, uncooked bacon. There are plenty of folks on the internet who are wondering, "Will raw bacon kill me?" or "Can you die from eating raw bacon?" And though those questions are a bit dramatic, the original question stands: Can you eat uncooked bacon safely? If not, then what happens if you eat raw bacon? Is it the nightmare of food poisoning that I imagined, or will everything be totally fine?
In order to understand why my coworker thinks it'd be totally fine to eat raw bacon, you have to understand how bacon is made and what curing is. Bacon is a cured meat, made by taking a slab of pork belly and letting it sit in a brine, or mix of salt and water. The salt in the water draws the moisture out of the meat, killing some of the bacteria that are living on the meat and stopping the further growth of other bacteria, according to the The National Center for Home Food Preservation Guide and Literature Review Series.
That bacteria-killing process is kind of the whole point of curing meats. It's an easy—and tasty—way to preserve food that would otherwise quickly rot. So yes, bacon has a longer shelf life than raw pork belly and other uncured meats. But that doesn't mean you should eat raw bacon, since cured meat can still grow bacteria if handled incorrectly. "Because of the added salt and nitrite, bacon is far less perishable than other raw meat products," writes the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, adding, "Even so, the chilling is done quickly to prevent bacterial growth and promote its shelf-life."
Some would argue that the smoking process of bacon can make it safe for consumption, straight out of the package. (And by "some" I mean my coworker.) And it's true that smoking, or cooking meat slowly over indirect heat so it's imparted with the flavor of the wood, can leave you with bacon that's safe to eat without frying it. This is especially true if the pork has reached a minimum internal temperature of 145°F during the smoking process. But if you're buying bacon from the grocery store or even a butcher, there's no way to guarantee that the bacon has been smoked to that bacteria-killing temperature.
Plus, as the USDA FSIS points out, there are plenty of companies that give bacon the flavor of smoke by "spraying the bacon with a liquid smoke extract" and don't actually smoke it and cook it. Bacon that's been just given the flavor of smoke without actually being smoked probably hasn't reached that minimum internal temperature, which means it could be harboring bacteria or parasites that'll make you sick.
And you can get very sick from eating raw or undercooked pork. The most notorious illness is a parasitic infection called trichinellosis, which, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can cause, "nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, fever, and abdominal discomfort," that can last for months.
Long story short? Don't eat raw bacon. Even if it's cured, bacon can still go bad if it's not handled correctly, and you can't guarantee that your smoke-flavored bacon has been actually smoked to a safe internal temperature. Really, the only way to guarantee that the bacon you're eating is free of bacteria is to cook it thoroughly yourself, in a frying pan, the oven, or even a microwave.
I don't think this is too much of an ask, though. After all, I'd always much rather a slice of the cooked, crispy stuff to chewy, stringy, and raw bacon any day—especially if it means it'll keep me from getting sick.