Survival replaced sustainability as a top-of-mind concern in recent years, leading some to think sustainability was a passing fad in the food industry.
Sustainable manufacturing was never about saving the planet, although some of the concept's most enthusiastic proponents tried to drape a green cape on it. Stripped to its fundamentals, sustainability is a synonym for efficiency, and it's extremely difficult to find proponents of inefficiency and a return to wasteful ways.
Sustainability also is a counterpoint to criticism of "industrial food," the perception that mainstream practices disregard the public and put profit and expediency first. Corporate social responsibility argues that making products that are nutritious and environmentally responsible is just as important as profitability, and that food companies are not evil ogres but responsible organizations where talented workers can feel good about their jobs.
The last point cannot be overstated. While outsiders associate food production with jobs, the reality is today's food plants produce more products with fewer workers, and tomorrow's facilities will run leaner and meaner. Today's workforce possesses in-demand skills like mechatronics -- a talent without a name 20 years ago -- and recruiting and retaining those workers is a challenge.
Down and dirty locker rooms are out as companies lavish improvements on employee welfare areas. Company-provided clothing and even shoes are becoming the norm in dairy processing, where the introduction of outside contaminants can undermine the best sanitation protocols.
The look of tomorrow's plant automation is uncertain; the box it sits in, on the other hand, already is taking shape.
Bigger is better was the industry's mantra through much of the last century. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, holds two prime examples: General Mills' million-square-foot facility and, across town, Quaker Oats, a 22-building complex on 25 acres fronting the Cedar River.
Centralized manufacturing enabled low-cost production, but the downside of the eggs-in-one-basket approach became painfully obvious over time. An electrical substation fire once took GM's plant off line for 18 hours; a 2008 flood knocked Quaker completely out of commission for three weeks. By the time full operations resumed two months later, lost throughput at the world's largest cereal plant would have fed a small country for a year.
Regional production is today's trend, and that will continue. Logistics dictate site selection, and hauling finished goods halfway across the North American continent doesn't make economic sense. Diesel generators and even solar panels are being installed as a hedge against power outages, and energy conservation efforts increase the likelihood that at least partial production will continue in a worse-case scenario.
Smaller facilities are being laid out for maximum flexibility. The Dr. Schar bakery in Logan Township, N.J., exemplifies this. Riding the crest of the gluten-free diet trend, the Italy-based company opened the 60,000-sq.-ft. plant in the Philadelphia metro area in June 2012. More than 100 different products are produced, the company boasts, from breads to cookies and crackers to pasta. It was the company's fourth new facility in six years.
Equipment is getting easier to clean and sanitize, in part to meet higher food-safety standards but also because managers recognize that older designs mean more downtime and much higher labor expense over a machine's useful life. Stainless steel is the material of choice, and suppliers are redesigning their equipment to meet cleanability expectations.
"We're experts in thermal processing, and we're seeing that's not enough," says Andy Sharpe, product director-global food and feed at Buhler Aeroglide Corp., Cary, N.C. Panels on his dryers now are fully welded instead of spot welded, and the company soon will introduce a model that cuts cleaning time to an hour, compared to 8-10 hours for existing units.
"The equipment is going to look very different," adds Gary McMurray, director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta, which is developing a robotic chicken deboner. "I don't know if we'll get to clean-in-place, but you're going to see more machines cleaning themselves, and doing it on a continuous basis."
Beyond smaller envelopes and fewer workers, tomorrow's food facilities will be sensitive to social trends, resource-availability concerns and other issues that go beyond daily throughput numbers. Humane practices typify the new social awareness: Low-atmosphere stunning systems are making inroads in turkey and chicken plants, McMurray notes, a shift that placates animal-rights activists and reinvents shackling, one of the dirtiest and nastiest jobs in the food industry.
Better track-and-trace capabilities not only address regulatory and customer demands, they help satisfy the expectations of a more educated public. "People will know where their food is coming from, where it was stored and other details," he says. "The consumer is buying on trust, and the processing plant will play a role in building that trust."