2018 Manufacturing Survey: Sunny Expectations

Production faces many challenges, but food professionals are confident about meeting the demands of a changing market.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Editor's Note: This survey included numerous charts and graphic elements that can only be seen in our January issue or in our upcoming E-Handbook, Manufacturing Equipment's Role in Food Safety, available February 12, 2018. Fill out the form on this page to receive your copy of the e-handbook.

Call them cockeyed optimists if you will, but food industry professionals are riding into 2018 with great expectations, based on findings in Food Processing’s 17th annual Manufacturing Outlook Survey.

Four out of five survey respondents say they either are very optimistic or somewhat optimistic about the prospects for the New Year, the most upbeat attitude in at least five years. At the other extreme, barely 1 percent indicate they are very pessimistic, one-third the ratio of a year ago.

Optimism increases with headcount, with respondents from the largest organizations most confident riding into 2018. Those at companies with 50 or fewer employees were relatively downbeat, although the outlook at firms with 51-100 workers topped all demographic categories.

The protein sector--meat, poultry and seafood--topped all product categories in terms of positive outlook, closely followed by confections and sauces and condiments.

Anticipated increases in plant production help explain survey participants’ expectations. Only 15 percent think throughput will be flat or down somewhat, about half the proportion in the last three years. More expect their facility to rack up double-digit throughput increases than single digits.

Expectations for corporate performance are more mixed, with almost half indicating overall production will be roughly the same. One-third believe their facility’s production boost will come at the expense of other plants in the company’s network.

Slightly more than half believe facility staffing will increase, the highest proportion in at least five years. Only 6.3 percent foresee staff reductions, another recent-history low.

Food safety continues to rank as the top food manufacturing issue, both in terms of overall importance and in the number of food professionals who rank it No 1. Cost control had the second highest average ranking, but worker safety was rated first by a higher proportion, with 17 percent of respondents saying it is the most important issue. More professionals rated automation and capacity expansion as more important than cost control. Almost one-quarter reserve the top spot for food safety.

Food safety failures are costly, both in financial terms and in lost public and customer confidence. Some observers put the average direct cost of a recall at $10 million. Almost one in eight survey participants said their companies experienced a product recall in the past 12 months.

Mislabeling accounted for more than two in five of those recalls, and one-quarter involved biological, chemical or foreign-material contamination. Another quarter said their firms simply erred on the side of caution and the recalls did not involve a public health danger. Ten percent said suspected product was headed off before reaching distribution.

Most food and beverage companies regulated by the FDA now are subject to the preventive controls rules of the Food Safety Modernization Act, though only a small fraction have undergone a FSMA inspection. Most are confident they will survive an FDA inspection, with FSMA readiness ranking as one of the lowest concerns going into 2018. Of even less concern is FSMA compliance by suppliers, although the regulations require verification of supplier compliance.

In the run-up to FSMA, North American retailers and major food companies advocated third-party audits and certifications under the Global Food Safety Initiative. Most processors have accepted the idea, with three in five respondents saying they are GFSI certified and one in 10 considering undergoing an independent audit. One in six is certified under a proprietary food-safety standard.

Almost one in six reject the idea of any independent certification. The majority of those companies have 50 or fewer employees.

SQF remains the most common GFSI-sanctioned safety standard, with 40 percent certified under either level 2 or 3. BRC Global auditors visited 16 percent of respondents’ plants, with one in five undergoing either an IFS or FSSC 22000 audit (combined).

Employee training in food safety will be done in 2018 or was instituted last year at 73 percent of respondents’ facilities. Almost half are investing in more equipment for cleaning and sanitation. Other popular actions are the purchase of equipment with improved sanitary design or development or refinement of a hazard analysis, critical control points (HACCP) plan.

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