Food Manufacturing Industry

Significant Points

Nature of the Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Goods and services. Workers in the food manufacturing industry link farmers and other agricultural producers with consumers. They do this by processing raw fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and dairy products into finished goods ready for the grocer or wholesaler to sell to households, restaurants, or institutional food services.

Food manufacturing workers perform tasks as varied as the many foods we eat. For example, they slaughter, dress, and cut meat or poultry; process milk, cheese, and other dairy products; can and preserve fruits, vegetables, and frozen specialties; manufacture flour, cereal, pet foods, and other grain mill products; make bread, cookies, cakes, and other bakery products; manufacture sugar and candy and other confectionery products; process shortening, margarine, and other fats and oils; and prepare packaged seafood, coffee, potato and corn chips, and peanut butter. Although this list is long, it is not exhaustive. Food manufacturing workers also play a part in delivering numerous other food products to our tables.

Quality control and quality assurance are vital to this industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service branch oversees all aspects of food manufacturing. In addition, other food safety programs have been adopted as issues of chemical and bacterial contamination and new food-borne pathogens remain a public health concern. For example, a food safety program called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point focuses on identifying hazards and preventing them from contaminating food in early stages of meat processing by applying science-based controls to the testing of food products—from their raw materials to the finished products. The program relies on individual processing plants developing and implementing safety measures along with a system to intercept potential contamination points, which is then subject to USDA inspections.

Industry organization. About 34 percent of all food manufacturing workers are employed in the animal slaughtering and processing and another 19 percent work in bakeries and tortilla manufacturing (table 1). Seafood product preparation and packaging accounts for only 3 percent of all jobs, making it the smallest industry group in the food manufacturing subsector.

Table 1. Percent distribution of employment and establishments in food manufacturing by detailed industry sector, 2008
Industry segment Employment Establishments
Total 100.0 100.0
Animal slaughtering and processing 34.5 14.3
Bakeries and tortilla manufacturing 18.7 40.0
Fruit and vegetable preserving and special food manufacturing 11.9 6.6
Dairy product manufacturing 8.8 6.2
Sugar and confectionary product manufacturing 4.8 7.1
Grain and oilseed milling 4.2 3.3
Animal food manufacturing 3.5 7.0
Seafood product preperation and packaging 2.5 3.0
Other food manufacturing 11.0 12.5

Working Conditions[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. The average production employee in food manufacturing worked 40.5 hours a week in 2008, compared with 40.8 hours a week for all manufacturing workers and 33.6 hours a week for workers in all private industries. Relatively few workers in manufacturing work part time or are on variable schedules. However, some food manufacturing operations also maintain a retail presence and employ a somewhat higher share of part-time workers.

Work environment. Many production jobs in food manufacturing involve repetitive, physically demanding work. Food manufacturing workers are highly susceptible to repetitive-strain injuries to their hands, wrists, and elbows. This type of injury is especially common in meat- and poultry-processing plants. Production workers often stand for long periods and may be required to lift heavy objects or use cutting, slicing, grinding, and other dangerous tools and machines. To deal with difficult working conditions and comply with safety regulations, companies have initiated ergonomic programs to cut down on work-related accidents and injuries.

In 2007, rates of work-related injury or illness for full-time food manufacturing workers were higher than the rates for all of manufacturing and for the private sector as a whole. Injury rates, however, varied significantly among specific food manufacturing industries—ranging from rate lower than the manufacturing average for workers in bakery and tortilla manufacturing to higher rates in seafood product preparation and packaging and in dairy manufacturing, which were among the highest rates for all private industries.

In an effort to reduce occupational hazards, many food manufacturing plants have redesigned equipment, increased the use of job rotation, allowed longer or more frequent breaks, and implemented extensive training programs in safe work practices. Furthermore, meat and poultry plants must comply with a wide array of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations ensuring a safer work environment. Although injury rates remain high, safety training seminars and workshops have reduced those rates. Some workers wear protective hats or masks, gloves, aprons, and boots. In many companies, uniforms and protective clothing are changed daily for reasons of sanitation.

Because of the considerable mechanization in the industry, most food manufacturing plants are noisy, with limited opportunities for interaction among workers. In some highly automated plants, "hands-on" manual work has been replaced by computers and factory automation, resulting in less waste and higher productivity. Although much of the basic production—such as trimming, chopping, and sorting—will remain labor intensive for many years to come, automation is increasingly being applied to various functions, including inventory management, product movement, and quality control issues such as packing and inspection.

Working conditions also depend on the type of food being processed. For example, some bakery employees work at night or on weekends and spend much of their shifts near ovens that can be uncomfortably hot. In contrast, workers in dairies and meat-processing plants typically work daylight hours and may experience cold and damp conditions. Some plants, such as those producing processed fruits and vegetables, operate on a seasonal basis, so workers are not guaranteed steady, year-round employment and occasionally travel from region to region seeking work. These plants are increasingly rare, however, as the industry continues to diversify and manufacturing plants produce alternative foods during otherwise inactive periods.

Employment[To Top]

In 2008, the food manufacturing industry provided 1.5 million jobs. In 2008, about 28,400 establishments manufactured food, with 89 percent employing fewer than 100 workers. Nevertheless, establishments employing 500 or more workers accounted for 36 percent of all jobs.

The employment distribution in this industry varies widely. Animal slaughtering and processing employs the largest proportion of workers. Economic changes in livestock farming and slaughtering plants have changed the industry. Increasingly, fewer farms are producing the vast majority of livestock in the United States—although they are larger farms generally. Similarly, there are now fewer, but much larger, meat-processing plants, owned by fewer companies—a development that has tended to concentrate employment in a few locations.

Food manufacturing workers are found in all States, although some sectors of the industry are concentrated in certain parts of the country. For example, in 2007, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas employed about 29 percent of all workers in animal slaughtering and processing, representing a shift in employment from Northern States to Southern States and from beef and pork processing to poultry processing. That same year, California and Wisconsin employed 25 percent of all dairy manufacturing workers; California accounted for 19 percent of fruit and vegetable canning, pickling, and drying workers.

Occupations in the Industry[To Top]

The food manufacturing industry employs many different types of workers. More than half, or 54 percent, are production workers, including skilled precision workers and less skilled machine operators and laborers (table 2). Production jobs require manual dexterity, good hand-eye coordination, and, in some sectors of the industry, strength.

Red-meat production is the most labor-intensive food-processing operation. Animals are not uniform in size, and slaughterers and meatpackers must slaughter, skin, eviscerate, and cut each carcass into large pieces. They usually do this work by hand, using large, suspended power saws. Increasingly, most food manufacturing plants today require slaughterers and meat packers to further process the large parts by cleaning, salting, and cutting them into tenders and chucks to make them readily available for retail use. Such prepackaged meat products are increasingly preferred by retailers and grocers as they can be easily displayed and sold without the need of a butcher. Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers use handtools to break down the large primary cuts into smaller sizes for shipment to wholesalers and retailers. Such ready-to-cook meat products are increasingly prepared at processing plants where preparation may now entail filleting; cutting into bite-sized pieces or tenders; preparing and adding vegetables; and applying sauces and flavorings, marinades, or breading. These workers use knives and other handtools for these processes.

Bakers mix and bake ingredients according to recipes to produce breads, cakes, pastries, and other goods. Bakers produce goods in large quantities, using mixing machines, ovens, and other equipment.

Many food manufacturing workers use their hands or small handtools to do their jobs. Cannery workers perform a variety of routine tasks—such as sorting, grading, washing, trimming, peeling, or slicing—in the canning, freezing, or packaging of food products. Hand food decorators apply artistic touches to prepared foods. Candy molders and marzipan shapers form sweets into fancy shapes by hand.

As the food manufacturing industry increases the automation of production tasks , a growing number of workers are operating machines. For example, food batchmakers operate equipment that mixes, blends, or cooks ingredients used in manufacturing various foods, such as cheese, candy, honey, and tomato sauce. Dairy processing equipment operators process milk, cream, cheese, and other dairy products. Cutting and slicing machine operators slice bacon, bread, cheese, and other foods. Mixing and blending machine operators produce dough, batter, fruit juices, or spices. Crushing and grinding machine operators turn raw grains into cereals, flour, and other milled-grain products, and they produce oils from nuts or seeds. Extruding and forming machine operators produce molded food and candy, and casing finishers and stuffers make sausage links and similar products. Bottle packers and bottle fillers operate machines that fill bottles and jars with preserves, pickles, and other foodstuffs.

Food cooking machine operators and tenders steam, deep-fry, boil, or pressure-cook meats, grains, sugar, cheese, or vegetables. Food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders operate equipment that roasts grains, nuts, or coffee beans and tend ovens, kilns, dryers, and other equipment that removes moisture from macaroni, coffee beans, cocoa, and grain. Baking equipment operators tend ovens that bake bread, pastries, and other products. Some foods—ice cream, frozen specialties, and meat, for example—are placed in freezers or refrigerators by cooling and freezing equipment operators. Other workers tend machines and equipment that clean and wash food or food-processing equipment. Machine operators also clean and maintain machines and check the weight or volume of foods. Maintaining sanitation standards and complying with other health and safety regulations is a major part of food manufacturing workers’ jobs. Failure to avoid contaminating food or equipment could lead to closing a plant and destroying any food that may have become tainted.

Many other workers are needed to keep food manufacturing plants and equipment in good working order. Industrial machinery mechanics repair and maintain production machines and equipment. Maintenance repairers perform routine maintenance on machinery, such as changing and lubricating parts. Specialized mechanics include heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics, farm equipment mechanics, and diesel engine specialists.

Still other workers directly oversee the quality of the work and of final products. Supervisors direct the activities of production workers. Graders and sorters of agricultural products, production inspectors, and quality control technicians evaluate foodstuffs before, during, or after processing.

Food may spoil if not packaged properly and delivered promptly, so packaging and transportation employees play a vital role in the industry. Among these are freight, stock, and material movers, who manually move materials; hand packers and packagers, who pack bottles and other items as they come off the production line; and machine feeders and offbearers, who feed materials into machines and remove goods from the end of the production line. Industrial truck and tractor operators drive gasoline or electric-powered vehicles equipped with forklifts, elevated platforms, or trailer hitches to move goods around a storage facility. Truck drivers transport and deliver livestock, materials, or merchandise and may load and unload trucks. Driver/sales workers drive company vehicles over established routes to deliver and sell goods, such as bakery items, beverages, and vending-machine products.

The food manufacturing industry also employs a variety of managerial and professional workers. Managers include top executives, who make policy decisions; industrial production managers, who organize, direct, and control the operation of the manufacturing plant; and advertising, marketing, promotions, public relations, and sales managers, who direct advertising, sales promotion, and community relations programs.

Engineers, scientists, and technicians are becoming increasingly important as the food manufacturing industry implements new automation and food safety processes. These workers include industrial engineers, who plan equipment layout and workflow in manufacturing plants, emphasizing efficiency and safety. Also, mechanical engineers plan, design, and oversee the installation of tools, equipment, and machines. Chemists perform tests to develop new products and maintain the quality of existing products. Computer programmers and systems analysts develop computer systems and programs to support management and scientific research. Food scientists and technologists work in research laboratories or on production lines to develop new products, test current ones, and control food quality, including minimizing food-borne pathogens.

Finally, many sales workers, including sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, are needed to sell the manufactured goods to wholesale and retail establishments. Bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks and procurement clerks keep track of the food products going into and out of the plant. Janitors and cleaners keep buildings clean and orderly.

Table 2. Employment of wage and salary workers in food manufacturing, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
All occupations 1,484.8 100.0 -0.1
Management, business, and financial occupations 65.0 4.4 -2.6
Service occupations 57.1 3.9 -4.8
Sales and related occupations 52.1 3.5 -2.1
Office and administrative support occupations 104.1 7.0 -6.4
Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations 86.6 5.8 4.1
  Industrial machinery installation, repair, and maintenance workers 72.5 4.9 5.2
Production occupations 800.3 53.9 2.3
  First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers 46.4 3.1 -0.8
  Team assemblers 31.0 2.1 -0.7
  Bakers 50.0 3.4 -1.8
  Butchers and meat cutters 14.1 1.0 4.3
  Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers 129.4 8.7 5.7
  Slaughterers and meat packers 92.9 6.3 4.3
  Food batchmakers 79.8 5.4 7.0
  Food cooking machine operators and tenders 26.7 1.8 -0.8
  Crushing, grinding, polishing, mixing, and blending workers 33.2 2.2 12.5
  Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers 27.1 1.8 -2.8
  Packaging and filling machine operators and tenders 104.5 7.0 -3.0
  Helpers—Production workers 57.4 3.9 -2.1
Transportation and material moving occupations 266.0 17.9 -4.6
  Driver/sales workers and truck drivers 50.6 3.4 -2.4
  Industrial truck and tractor operators 39.2 2.6 -2.4
  Cleaners of vehicles and equipment 19.5 1.3 -0.5
  Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 60.2 4.1 -4.0
  Packers and packagers, hand 64.2 4.3 -7.5
NOTE: Columns may not add to total due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement[About this section] [To Top]

Most production jobs in food manufacturing require little formal education. Graduation from high school is preferred, but not always required. In general, inexperienced workers start as helpers to experienced workers and learn skills on the job. Many of these entry-level jobs can be learned in a few days. Typical jobs include operating a bread-slicing machine, washing fruits and vegetables before processing begins, hauling carcasses, and packing bottles as they come off the production line. Even though it may not take long to learn to operate a piece of equipment, employees may need several years of experience before they are able to keep the equipment running smoothly, efficiently, and safely.

Some food manufacturing workers need specialized training and education. Inspectors and quality control workers, for example, are trained in food safety and usually need a certificate to be employed in a food manufacturing plant. Often, USDA-appointed plant inspectors have a bachelor's degree in agricultural or food science. Formal educational requirements for managers in food manufacturing plants range from 2-year degrees to master's degrees. Those who hold research positions, such as food scientists, usually need a master's or doctoral degree; research chefs typically have years of professional cooking experience.

In addition to participating in specialized training, a growing number of workers receive broader training to perform a number of jobs. The need for flexibility in more automated workplaces has meant that many food manufacturing workers are learning new tasks and being trained to work effectively in teams. Some specialized training is provided for bakers and some other positions.

Advancement may come in the form of higher earnings or more responsibility. Helpers usually progress to jobs as machine operators, but the speed of this progression can vary considerably. Some workers who perform exceptionally well on the production line, or those with special training and experience, may advance to supervisory positions. Plant size and the existence of formal promotion tracks may influence advancement opportunities.

Requirements for other jobs are similar to requirements for the same types of jobs in other industries. Employers usually hire high school graduates for secretarial and other clerical work. Graduates of 2-year associate degree or other postsecondary programs often are sought for science technician and related positions. College graduates or highly experienced workers are preferred for middle-management or professional jobs in personnel, accounting, marketing, or sales.

Outlook[About this section] [To Top]

Employment change. Overall wage and salary employment in food manufacturing is expected to experience no change over the 2008-18 period, compared with 11 percent employment growth projected for the entire economy. Despite the rising demand for manufactured food products by a growing population, automation and increasing productivity are limiting employment growth in most industry segments. Nevertheless, numerous job openings will arise within food manufacturing, as experienced workers transfer to other industries or retire or leave the labor force for other reasons.

Fierce competition has led food manufacturing plants to invest in technologically advanced machinery to become more productive. The new machines have been applied to tasks as varied as packaging, inspection, and inventory control, but the processing of animal products remains a labor-intensive activity that is resistant to automation efforts. As a result, employment will decrease for some machine operators, such as packaging and filling machine operators and tenders, while employment growth is expected for industrial engineers and industrial machinery mechanics, who are responsible for the design or repair and maintenance of new equipment. Computers also are being widely implemented throughout the industry, streamlining administrative functions, but also requiring that all workers, including production workers, develop technical skills and a comfort level in reading and understanding digital readouts and instructions. This will result in decreased employment for administrative support workers, such as order clerks, but increasing the demand for production workers, such as food batchmakers who have excellent technical skills.

Food manufacturing firms will be able to use this new automation to better meet the changing demands of a growing and increasingly diverse population. As convenience becomes more important, consumers increasingly demand highly processed foods such as pre-marinated pork loins, peeled and cut carrots, microwaveable soups, or ready-to-cook dinners. Such a shift in consumption will contribute to the demand for food manufacturing workers and will lead to the development of thousands of new processed foods. Domestic producers also will attempt to market these goods abroad as the volume of international trade continues to grow. The increasing size and diversity of the American population has driven demand for a greater variety of foods, including more ethnic foods. The combination of expanding export markets and shifting and increasing domestic consumption will help employment among food processing occupations to rise over the next decade and will lead to significant changes throughout the food manufacturing industry.

Job growth will vary by occupation but will be concentrated among production occupations—the largest group of workers in the industry. Because many of the cutting, chopping, and eviscerating tasks performed by these workers have proven difficult to automate, employment among handworkers will rise along with the growing demand for food products. Handworking occupations include slaughterers and meat packers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers, whose employment will rise as the consumption of meat, poultry, and fish climbs and as more processing, in the form of case-ready products, takes place at the manufacturing level. Other production workers, such as food batchmakers, also will benefit from an increasing population and increased demand for more convenient, prepackaged foods.

Job prospects. Unlike many other industries, food manufacturing is not as sensitive to economic conditions as other industries. Even during periods of recession, the demand for food is likely to remain relatively stable and the demand for processed food may even increase. While factors such as animal diseases, currency fluctuations, adverse weather, and changing trade agreements often affect short-term availability of various food products, long-term availability will remain steady.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Production workers in food manufacturing averaged $14.00 an hour, compared with $18.08 per hour for all workers in private industry in 2008. (See table 3.) Weekly earnings among food manufacturing workers were lower than average, at $567 compared with $608 for all workers in private industry. Weekly earnings ranged from $501 in animal slaughtering and processing plants to $813 in grain and oilseed milling plants.

Table 3. Average earnings of production or nonsupervisory workers in food manufacturing by industry segment, 2008
Industry segment Hourly Weekly
Total, private industry $18.08 $608
Food manufacturing 14.00 567
  Grain and oilseed milling 18.70 813
  Dairy products 17.91 759
  Sugar and confectionery products 16.28 642
  Animal food 15.21 650
  Other food products 14.40 595
  Fruit and vegetable preserving and specialty 14.21 579
  Bakeries and tortilla manufacturing 13.40 509
  Seafood product preparation and packaging 12.92 515
  Animal slaughtering and processing 12.34 501

Wages in selected occupations in food manufacturing appear in table 4.

Table 4. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in food manufacturing, May 2008
Occupation Food manufacturing All industries
First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers $22.33 $24.25
Industrial truck and tractor operators 13.94 13.98
Packaging and filling machine operators and tenders 12.31 11.73
Food batchmakers 12.06 11.62
Bakers 11.44 11.20
Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 11.15 10.89
Slaughterers and meat packers 11.08 11.07
Helpers—production workers 10.61 10.48
Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers 10.51 10.49
Packers and packagers, hand 10.12 9.16

Benefits and union membership. In 2008, 17 percent of workers in the food manufacturing industry belonged to a union or were covered by a union contract, compared with 14 percent of all workers in the private sector. Prominent unions in the industry include the United Food and Commercial Workers; the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union.



*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

Explore more careers: View all Careers or Browse Careers by Category