The world is changing, and the food industry is changing along with it. Food safety is becoming a bigger concern to consumers, technological advances are accelerating at full speed, and baby boomers are well on the road to retirement. The political scene, including guidelines that have come into effect over the past decade, are changing the priorities of the food service industry.

The online publication Food Processing recently conducted a Manufacturing Outlook Survey, which focused on the priorities and attitudes of food and beverage manufacturers. While many factors stayed the same as previous years, examining the trends that the survey uncovered can reveal how the industry is addressing the issues that worldwide changes have caused.

Prioritizing Food Safety

Major recalls over the past year have put the supply chain under more scrutiny than ever, giving the industry additional cause to carefully ensure that their production lines stick to tight safety guidelines. In addition, consumers are more consistently interested in understanding how the supply chain works, and how the food products that they buy are manufactured. These changes have put a higher value on transparency. A consumer’s understanding of how each food safely makes it through the production process can make a difference in a manufacturer’s reputation in the industry.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the survey showed that food safety has ranked extremely high in priority by many manufacturers. In fact, 21.6% ranked it the most important issue in 2017, making it the top-ranked priority – as has been the case in previous years. While cost control ranked second on the list of priorities, FSMA readiness was close behind. (Food Safety Modernization Act [FSMA] guidelines include providing production workers with required food-safety training, and then documenting that training sufficiently.)

So what are manufacturers doing in order to revamp their safety ratings? More of them are requiring employee training, developing new or improved HACCP plans, and upgrading their sanitation equipment. They are also undergoing rapid microbial testing to ensure that their cleaning programs are effective, as well as improving their pest control programs.

In addition, about half of them are investing in attaining certification or undergoing third-party audits for food safety. Manufacturers surveyed this year were much more likely to participate in independent food-safety audits of their facilities than those who were surveyed in previous years. They are also more likely to become certified under one of the food safety standards that the Global Food Safety Initiative endorses. A small percentage – a bit over 20% -- are independently audited under a proprietary program, such as AIB or Silliker, leaving only 15% who are not considering any certification at all.

Solving Staffing Issues

Due primarily to technological progress, the food industry has followed recent trends in manufacturing when it comes to employment: employment opportunities have dropped, while output has risen drastically. (In the US manufacturing sector, employment opportunities are 37% lower than they were forty years ago, whereas production is over 100% greater.) Therefore, this year’s survey found more manufacturers looking for opportunities to reduce their workforce, either actively or through attrition, with fewer manufacturers looking to add to their workforce.

Inversely, manufacturers are finding it difficult to find experienced professionals to fill more technical jobs. Baby boomers are slowly exiting the workforce, leaving manufacturers with a lack of experienced and knowledgeable technicians. To address this issue, half of the manufacturers surveyed are looking to expand in-house technical training, enabling them to use the talent that they already have. A smaller percentage have chosen to actively recruit maintenance technicians for those jobs that required advanced skills with technology.

Addressing New Consumer Demands

More and more consumers have begun to opt for “clean label” food products, distancing themselves from ingredient lists that include preservatives or enzymes that are unfamiliar to them. This trend has drastically affected the food processing industry, with almost two thirds of manufacturers citing adjusted operations in their facilities as a result of these changes. A third are embracing new technologies and equipment, and 22% have built new lines or facilities, to compete in this new marketplace.

On the other end of the spectrum, nearly three in ten manufacturers seem unfazed by these changes. In the survey, they agreed that consumer demand for conventional products is adequate for their company to maintain or even increase their production rates, without any adjustments. Other companies found this trend to actually work in their favor, increasing their production rates.

The message to those in the food processing industry? Embrace change. As issues arise, refrain from viewing them with fear or uncertainty. Instead, find ways to deal with those issues, whether it be through standard checking, employee training, or product adjustment. The manufacturers who will stand the test of time are those who will accommodate the shifting tides of governmental, technological, and consumer-driven changes to the marketplace.

Written by Rob Brown