Food Processing Career Field Structure
The food industry is one of the largest areas of employment in the United States. The industry includes people who work on farms and for food processing companies, food research laboratories, food wholesale and retail companies, restaurants, railroads and trucks that transport food, or agencies that prepare food advertising. Others work in hundreds of other companies that supply goods or services vital in converting a raw farm crop into a ready-to-use food. The food processing industry provided nearly 725,000 jobs in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Food processors or manufacturers stand in the middle of the food industry production line. They work with the farmers who supply the raw crops, the wholesalers and retailers who distribute their finished products, and the consumers who buy them. For that reason, there is a great variety of jobs in food manufacturing companies.
Most food manufacturers, large or small, divide their companies into areas responsible for purchasing, processing, packaging, and marketing food products. Depending on the size of the company, there may be special departments for engineering, trafficking, accounting, distribution, law, public relations, and personnel.
The industry tries to provide consumers with a flow of new and improved products. The research laboratories of manufacturers invest millions of dollars annually in research on new products and on new uses and improvements of old ones. They employ thousands of scientists and other specially trained people for this purpose.
Advances in the food processing industry allow us to eat foods that were grown thousands of miles away and harvested weeks earlier. Food processing prevents food from spoiling as quickly as it would otherwise. It also provides greater convenience, variety, color, taste, and, in many cases, monetary savings. Food is processed and preserved by cold storage, canning, freezing, drying, freeze-drying, curing, and, most recently, by the use of antibiotics and a process called irradiation, which uses microwave and ultraviolet rays.
Food research has become so complex that a battery of scientists does constant work in many areas. Organic chemists, biochemists, analytical chemists, food technologists, and chemical engineers each have special roles.
Before a new product is introduced, its potential market is surveyed carefully by market researchers who must be consistently alert to changes in consumers’ attitudes, needs, and shopping habits. Market researchers plan and conduct studies and surveys to get the facts on the performance and acceptance of existing products and to define the potential market for new products. Price, brand image, distribution, size and appearance of packages, advertising, and promotion are some of the areas in which market researchers work. Market researchers provide information used in major food production decisions.
Once a product has been approved for production, the manufacturer starts the processing, packaging, and shipping of the new food item. Manufacturers create thousands of new products every year and develop consumer markets for them. They improve their old products; promote foods and good eating; offer their brands in safe, attractive, and convenient packages; and make products available at reasonable prices.
The manufacturer establishes the chain needed to get a food from the farmer to the grocery store. For a new product, this means that the manufacturer contracts with farmers to deliver a certain type of food product—eggs, for example. The manufacturer then finds or converts a processing factory to make the new product. While the factory is being developed to produce this new product, packaging is being designed, advertisement campaigns are being developed, and market research is continuing.
Once all the steps are in place for producing, packaging, and delivering the product, the manufacturing begins. There is an enormous variety of methods for preparing food. Some foods may require only one preparation method; others may require several. Lettuce usually just needs to be harvested and washed, but some companies now offer packaged lettuce, often with bits of carrots and red cabbage, as ready-to-eat salad. Cows and other animals are slaughtered, cleaned, and cut up for consumption. Foods for frozen dinners require a great deal of preparation. They need to be harvested, cleaned, combined, and cooked according to a recipe, portioned out, and then frozen in special packaging.
The processing of foods is a modern technological accomplishment and a highly complex business. It is also a high-cost operation with narrow quality limits. Consequently, food and grocery manufacturers have relied on sophisticated processes to aid in the production and marketing of food items.
Dehydration is one such process. A key word that has helped sell dehydration to the American consumer is instant, which is used now with products such as potatoes, milk powders, cereals, and dozens of other packaged dry products as well as coffees, teas, and cocoa. These packaged dry products are prepared simply with the addition of hot water.
Freeze-drying is another process to which consumers have become accustomed. It involves first freezing the food so that the moisture is transformed into ice crystals. Then it is dehydrated under vacuum at low temperature. The ice sublimates so that the crystals pass off as vapor without going through an immediate liquid state. Freeze-dried foods retain bulk but lose water weight. For example, three freeze-dried pork chops weigh no more than a single fresh pork chop. After preparation, however, freeze-dried chops regain normal weight and retain most of the original flavor and texture.
Among the first consumer packages containing freeze-dried ingredients were soups. Other freeze-dried products include beef steaks, precooked scrambled eggs, ham patty mix, chicken stew, shrimp, pot roast of beef, Swiss steak, and fruits and vegetables.
Processes that until relatively recently were only laboratory terms are becoming household words. In the United States, for example, it is estimated that 90 percent of the homes have microwave ovens, and the industry provides many products suited for microwave preparation.
Another modern processing method is irradiation, which can keep seafood, meats, fruits, and vegetables fresh. Irradiated food is not frozen. It tastes and looks fresh. Like freeze-dried foods, these foods can be stored on the shelf. When ready for use, they can be cooked just as fresh foods are. New processes are continually being developed that will expand the ever-broadening variety of foods for the American consumer.
The important functions between the factory door and the consumer’s kitchen—distribution, selling, packaging, and all forms of promotion directed to the consumer—are what create a demand for a product. Customer familiarity with brand names and manufacturers allows a manufacturer to promote new lines. Customers who are happy with one product line from a manufacturer are more likely to try another line from the same manufacturer. Different methods are used to establish a manufacturer’s identity with the customer. A line of processed foods led to the creation of the mythical Betty Crocker, identified with the kitchens of General Mills in Minneapolis. The familiar image of the Quaker man on the oats cereal package is now used to introduce new lines of cereals for Quaker Oats Company.
Those who supply and process food must be constantly aware of changing consumer tastes and demands. In the mid-1980s, for example, consumers turned increasingly toward natural foods as additives came under growing scrutiny and criticism by consumers and the Food and Drug Administration. Today, many consumers have doubts about irradiation processes and the genetic engineering of foods since the long-term effects on human health have not been formally studied.
Consumers’ concerns with their health led to the introduction of products emphasizing high-fiber, low-fat, and low-sodium content. In 1992, new regulations were developed requiring the food industry to provide even more detailed nutritional information on their packages. During the 1990s, fat, or the absence of it, became a major new trend in food preparation and marketing. New federal nutritional guidelines, recommending that no more than 30 percent of daily caloric intake should come from fat, have led health-conscious consumers to watch their fat intake more closely, and manufacturers and food scientists have responded with a variety of low-fat and fat-free foods. In the early 2000s, the American public became fascinated by low carbohydrate diets that promoted weight loss, but did not necessarily guarantee overall good health. We can expect that as researchers discover new links between our health and the types of foods we eat, the food industry will continue to respond with new foods, preparations, and processing techniques to meet the latest consumer demands.