2005 Annual Manufacturing Trends Survey

Food safety is still everyone's top concern, but recruiting workers to make our food is a growing worry.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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Just a month after the outgoing secretary of Health and Human Services wondered aloud "why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," respondents to our fourth annual Manufacturing Trends Survey identified food safety as their No. 1 concern for the new year.

If a former Bush cabinet member (Tommy Thompson) is that concerned, it's no surprise the security of our food supply has been paramount in all four surveys we've conducted. But when asked for additional comments or concerns, not a single respondent elaborated on food safety. The issue has the potential for creating the biggest tragedy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 … or (hopefully) as much of a non-story as the terrorist attacks in Iraq on that country's recent election day.

On the other hand, respondents to our survey also were gearing up for what should be a very busy year. Seventy percent anticipated production increases of at least 5 percent, nearly half of them projecting ramp-ups of more than 10 percent. Only 3 percent predicted production cutbacks.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents ranked food safety as their top manufacturing concern for 2005. Eighty-five percent said they are taking additional steps this year to ensure food safety, including equipment upgrades and certification, better control of plant GMPs (good manufacturing practices), increasing use of food safety audits, auditing the plant's training, tighter plant security and more use of metal detection, X-ray and vision systems. Several said they were upgrading hazards analysis and critical control points (HACCP) programs.

An Illinois snack food manufacturer just hired a "Food Safety Manager to review company-wide programs." Another manufacturing exec said his firm would undertake "more monitoring of both inbound ingredients and outbound product as well as improved monitoring of all production processes."

"We are taking bioterrorism much more seriously and are going through some training," wrote a man at a Los Angeles bakery.

METHODOLOGY

Our fourth annual Manufacturing Trends Survey was an e-mail survey taken during the month of January. There were 268 respondents in the following food categories: bakery (14 percent), beverages (11 percent), confectionery (4 percent), dairy (7 percent), fruits and vegetables (7 percent), frozen products (8 percent), further-processed foods and specialties (25 percent), meats and poultry (15 percent), snack foods (5 percent) and wellness foods (4 percent).
With all the concern over food safety, there's a drop-off to concern No. 2. Labor issues (including recruiting, training and even reducing headcount) garnered 28 percent of the vote. Despite the big disparity, labor issues gained six points from last year's survey and food safety dropped four points. Only 1.9 percent of respondents ranked labor as their least important concern, about the same as those who had minimal concern for food safety (1.5 percent).

In a weighted-tally system (giving decreasing points for second-, third- and other placements), labor was a much closer second (1,175 points versus food safety's 1,347 points), and automation was the only other issue to score more than 1,000 points. Other concerns are in the accompanying graphic. To access the PDF-formatted graphic, click the "Download Now" button at the end of this article.

Labor pains

While labor concerns meant different things to different respondents, there did seem to be a growing fear that finding and keeping quality of workers â€" at a price the traditionally stingy food industry can afford â€" was nearing the crisis point.

"You touched on competent technician availability â€" it gets tougher every year," wrote a plant official at a North Carolina meat and poultry plant. "We as an industry need to improve our recruiting in technical colleges for line technicians."

"It's getting harder to find the kind of people we want to work for us," Blake Blackburn of Latin American Ingredients, Fairland, Okla., said in a follow-up interview. In addition to ingredients, his company makes bakery premixes and is a contract food manufacturer. "When you do find them, it's harder to train them because of the level of technology we now use and the food regulations. And once you do train them, it's harder to keep them."

That last comment, he said, referred to trained workers moving to bigger-name food processors in Joplin, Mo. (30-40 minutes away), which has a number of larger food plants. "Labor really is our No. 1 concern right now," he added.

There's good reason to be concerned. Labor is by far the biggest factor in food costs, according to a number of studies, and more than half of food industry employees are production workers, according to a 2002 report from the U.S. Dept. of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The food industries in New Jersey and elsewhere are facing mounting problems in the workforce arena," says a report from the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. The institute's board of directors has designated labor problems as the most pressing issue facing the food industry.

"Indeed, there is consensus among industry executives that the food system is facing a growing labor crisis in terms of their ability to recruit and retain qualified workers," the Food Policy Institute report continues. "Food industry executives frequently cite concerns about the poor work readiness skills and weak work ethics among rising workforce entrants. Tardiness, lack of reliability and poor personal presentation are among the complaints levied by managers. Similarly, language and literacy barriers are obstacles faced in many of the lower-skill job classes."

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