Food Processing Plant Experts Answer Your Questions

June 25, 2008
July's MRO Q&A answers your questions about middle management, fresh produce recalls and environmental concerns in the food processing industry

We’ve assembled a panel of plant operations experts to answer any question you have on plant-floor issues. To pose a question, go to

As a mid-level supervisor, I feel caught between employees who feel like they are overworked and underappreciated and a senior management group that is always asking for more. Where do I find the common ground?

For more than 20 years now, the food industry in the U.S. has been in a consolidation mode. Mergers and acquisitions have allowed food processors to expand their share of market while reducing the total labor needed to produce this output. Consolidations also have created the multi-disciplined workforces of today. Breaking down the barriers of “functional silos” certainly has improved management efficiency; however, the “jack-of-all-trades” job description has left many employers, as well as employees, questioning the value of their efforts. From the employee viewpoint, they are working more hours under higher levels of stress and their efforts are less appreciated.

Recent surveys of food company executives indicate that senior managers have an increased concern regarding the quality and cost of their workforce. To better understand this issue, lets look at a packing line that has four basic elements. The efficiency of each of these separate operations is 80 percent, 82 percent, 85 percent and 90 percent. This gives us an overall line efficiency of 50 percent. Anyone who has spent time working on a line like this understands the feeling of being under pressure all day long. Likewise if your base job has four functional requirements and you are 80 percent, 82 percent, 85 percent and 90 percent efficient in each area, your total job efficiency is 50 percent. You feel higher levels of stress and it seems you’re working harder every day. At the same time your company feels they are only getting half as much accomplished versus their expectations.

The key to resolving this disconnect is to provide a better definition of job requirements in your base job description and outline development programs that will improve job performance while helping management understand the downtime tradeoffs with multi-functional job creation. The more multi-functional the job description, the more training time required for the job and therefore less on-job hours. This may be the key basis for you justifying higher headcount to produce a more productive work week.

What is the most critical environmental concern within the food industry?

Since all food sectors use it, water usage and wastewater discharge would be very high on anyone’s list of critical environmental issues. Many food processing facilities use more than 1 million gallons of water per day. Since most facilities are usually located in smaller communities, this usage can often place a major strain on local utilities.

Food processing wastewater can be characterized as organic and fundamentally nontoxic; however, the biological oxygen demand value of food wastewater is relatively high compared to other industries. This is due to the fact food processing wastewater contains elevated amount of dissolved and/or suspended solids. As a result most public treatment plants will impose elevated fees or surcharges to handle this stream. With the major increase in these fees over the past decade, many food facilities are taking steps to reduce their waste streams before they discharge them into the public system. Commonly used methods include membrane filtration and centrifugal and gravity separation processes.
What are the core issues behind all these fresh food product recalls lately?

As health-conscious consumers try to improve their diet by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, demand is exceeding the ability of local suppliers to provide local products. This daily demand for fresh produce in turn places a strain on a global supply chain that currently lacks consistent practices for sanitation. Add to that problem, the issues of stronger bacterial strains appearing around the world and you understand the major issues with fresh food delivery.

While food processors have always maintained major employee training programs to address the in-plant issues of hygiene and sanitation, consumers need to be more aware of how to handle fresh products. Today we live in a far more casual world. Our behavior and attitudes reflect a lack of understanding of how our hygiene impacts what we eat and how we eat it.

Beware that the fresh produce you are handling in the store is a raw material, and it has already been handled by someone else. If it has not been grown locally (it probably hasn’t), it may have traveled a long way to get to your store and it has passed through several transfer stations.
The consumer has a responsibility for the final processing of this type of food, just as food processors do. They need to carefully wash and clean these products before eating them. Fresh is good; however, in today’s world, fresh does not mean ready to eat.

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