Workers in the food manufacturing industry link farmers and other agricultural producers with consumers. They do this by processing raw fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and dairy products into finished goods ready for the grocer or wholesaler to sell to households, restaurants, or institutional food services.
Food manufacturing workers perform tasks as varied as the many foods we eat. For example, they slaughter, dress, and cut meat or poultry; process milk, cheese, and other dairy products; can and preserve fruits, vegetables, and frozen specialties; manufacture flour, cereal, pet foods, and other grain mill products; make bread, cookies, and other bakery products; manufacture sugar and candy and other confectionery products; process shortening, margarine, and other fats and oils; and prepare packaged seafood, coffee, potato and corn chips, and peanut butter. Although this list is long, it is not exhaustivefood manufacturing workers also play a part in delivering numerous other food products to our tables.
Table 1 shows that about 34 percent of all food manufacturing workers are employed in plants that slaughter and process animals, and another 19 percent work in establishments that make bakery goods. Seafood product preparation and manufacturing, the smallest sector of the food manufacturing industry, accounts for only about 3 percent of all jobs.
Table 1. Employment in food manufacturing by industry segment, 2002 and projected change, 2002-12 (Employment in thousands)
2002-2012 Percent change
Animal slaughtering and processing
Bakeries and tortilla manufacturing
Fruit and vegetable preserving and specialty food manufacturing
Many production jobs in food manufacturing involve repetitive, physically demanding work. Food manufacturing workers are highly susceptible to repetitive strain injuries to hands, wrists, and elbows. This type of injury is especially common in meat-processing and poultry-processing plants. Production workers often stand for long periods and may be required to lift heavy objects or use cutting, slicing, grinding, and other potentially dangerous tools and machines.
In 2002, there were 9.3 cases of work-related injury or illness per 100 full-time food manufacturing workers, much higher than the rate of 5.3 cases for the private sector as a whole. Injury rates vary significantly among specific food manufacturing industries, ranging from a low of 3.8 per 100 workers in flavoring extracts and syrups plants to 14.9 per 100 in meat packing plants, the highest rate in food manufacturing.
In an effort to reduce occupational hazards, many plants have redesigned equipment, increased the use of job rotation, allowed longer or more frequent breaks, and developed training programs in safe work practices. Although injury rates remain high, training and other changes have reduced those rates. Some workers wear protective hats, gloves, aprons, and shoes. In many industries, uniforms and protective clothing are changed daily for sanitary reasons.
Because of the considerable mechanization in the industry, most food manufacturing plants are noisy, with limited opportunities for interaction among workers. In some highly automated plants, “hands-on” manual work has been replaced by computers and factory automation, resulting in less waste and higher productivity. While much of the basic productionsuch as trimming, chopping, and sortingwill remain labor intensive for many years to come, automation is increasingly being applied to various functions, including inventory control, product movement, packing, and inspection.
Working conditions also depend on the type of food being processed. For example, some bakery employees work at night or on weekends and spend much of their shift near ovens that can be uncomfortably hot. In contrast, workers in dairies and meat-processing plants work typical daylight hours and may experience cold and damp conditions. Some plants, such as those producing processed fruits and vegetables, operate on a seasonal basis, so workers are not guaranteed steady, year-round employment and occasionally travel from region to region seeking work. These plants are increasingly rare, however, as the industry continues to diversify and manufacturing plants produce alternate foods during otherwise inactive periods.
In 2002, the food manufacturing industry provided about 1.5 million jobs. Almost all employees are wage and salary workers, but a few food manufacturing workers are self-employed. In 2002 about 29,000 establishments manufactured food, over 80 percent employing fewer than 50 workers (chart 1). Nevertheless, establishments employing 250 or more workers accounted for 55 percent of all jobs.
The employment distribution in this industry is widely varied. Animal slaughtering and processing employs the largest proportion of workers. Economic changes in livestock farming and slaughtering plants have changed the industry. Increasingly, fewer farms are producing the vast majority of livestock in the United States. Today, there is a smaller number of much larger meat-processing plants, owned by fewer companiesa development that has tended to concentrated employment in a few locations.
Food manufacturing workers are found in all States, although some sectors of the industry are concentrated in certain parts of the country. For example, California, Illinois, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Texas employ more than a quarter of workers in animal slaughtering and processing. Wisconsin one-third of all cheese manufacturing workers. California accounts for one-fifth of fruit and vegetable preserving and specialty food manufacturing workers.
The food manufacturing industry employs many different types of workers. More than half are production workers, including skilled precision workers and less-skilled machine operators and laborers (table 2). Production jobs require manual dexterity, good hand-eye coordination, and in some sectors of the industry, strength.
Red meat production is the most labor-intensive food-processing operation. Animals are not uniform in size, and
slaughterers and meatpackers must slaughter, skin, eviscerate, and cut each carcass into large pieces. They usually do this work by hand, using large, heavy power saws. They also clean and salt hides and make sausage. Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers use handtools to break down the large primary cuts into smaller sizes for shipment to wholesalers and retailers. They use knives and other handtools to eviscerate, split, and bone chickens and turkeys.
Bakers mix and bake ingredients according to recipes to produce breads, cakes, pastries, and other goods. Bakers produce goods in large quantities, using mixing machines, ovens, and other equipment.
Many food manufacturing workers use their hands or small handtools to do their jobs. Cannery workers perform a variety of routine taskssuch as sorting, grading, washing, trimming, peeling, or slicingin the canning, freezing, or packing of food products. Hand food decorators apply artistic touches to prepared foods. Candy molders and marzipan shapers form sweets into fancy shapes by hand.
With increasing levels of automation in the food manufacturing industry, a growing number of workers operate machines. For example, food batchmakers operate equipment that mixes, blends, or cooks ingredients used in manufacturing various foods, such as cheese, candy, honey, and tomato sauce. Dairy-processing equipment operators process milk, cream, cheese, and other dairy products. Cutting and slicing machine operators slice bacon, bread, cheese, and other foods. Mixing and blending machine operators produce dough batters, fruit juices, or spices. Crushing and grinding machine operators turn raw grains into cereals, flour, and other milled-grain products, and they produce oils from nuts or seeds. Extruding and forming machine operators produce molded food and candy, and casing finishers and stuffers make sausage links and similar products. Bottle packers and bottle fillers operate machines that fill bottles and jars with preserves, pickles, and other foodstuffs.
Food cooking machine operators and tenders steam, deep fry, boil, or pressure cook meats, grains, sugar, cheese, or vegetables. Food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders operate equipment that roasts grains, nuts, or coffee beans, and tend ovens, kilns, dryers, and other equipment that removes moisture from macaroni, coffee beans, cocoa, and grain. Baking equipment operators tend ovens that bake bread, pastries, and other products. Some foodsice cream, frozen specialties, and meat, for exampleare placed in freezers or refrigerators by cooling and freezing equipment operators. Other workers tend machines and equipment that clean and wash food or food-processing equipment. Some machine operators also clean and maintain machines and perform other duties such as checking the weight of foods.
Many other workers are needed to keep food manufacturing plants and equipment in good working order. Industrial machinery mechanics repair and maintain production machines and equipment. Maintenance repairers perform routine machinery maintenance, such as changing and lubricating parts. Specialized mechanics include heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics,farm equipment mechanics, and diesel engine specialists.
Still other workers directly oversee the quality of the work and of final products. Supervisors direct the activities of production workers. Graders and sorters of agricultural products, production inspectors, and quality control technicians evaluate foodstuffs before, during, or after processing.
Food may spoil if not properly packaged and promptly delivered, so packaging and transportation employees play a vital role in the industry. Among these are freight, stock, and material movers, who manually move materials; hand packers and packagers, who pack bottles and other items as they come off the production line; and machine feeders and offbearers, who feed materials into machines and remove goods from the end of the production line. Industrial truck and tractor operators drive gasoline or electric-powered vehicles equipped with forklifts, elevated platforms, or trailer hitches to move goods around a storage facility.
Truck drivers transport and deliver livestock, materials, or merchandise, and may load and unload trucks. Driver/sales workers drive company vehicles over established routes to deliver and sell goods, such as bakery items, beverages, and vending machine products.
Engineers, scientists, and technicians are becoming increasingly important as the food manufacturing industry implements new automation. These workers include industrial engineers,who plan equipment layout and workflow in manufacturing plants, emphasizing efficiency and safety. Also, mechanical engineers plan, design, and oversee the installation of tools, equipment, and machines.
Chemists perform tests to develop new products and maintain quality of existing products. Computer programmers and systems analysts develop computer systems and programs to support management and scientific research.
Food scientists and technologists work in research laboratories or on production lines to develop new products, test current ones, and control food quality.
Most workers in production-line food manufacturing jobs require little formal education or training. Graduation from high school is preferred but not always required. In general, inexperienced workers start as helpers to experienced workers and learn skills on the job. Many of these entry-level jobs can be learned in a few days. Typical jobs include operating a bread-slicing machine, washing fruits and vegetables before processing begins, hauling carcasses, or packing bottles as they come off the production line. Even though it may not take long to learn to operate a piece of equipment, employees may need several years of experience to enable them to keep the equipment running smoothly, efficiently, and safely.
Some food manufacturing workers need specialized training and education. Inspectors and quality control workers, for example, often are trained in food safety and may need a certificate to be employed in a food manufacturing plant. Formal educational requirements for managers in food manufacturing plants range from 2-year degrees to master’s degrees. Those who hold research positions, such as food scientists, usually need a master’s or doctoral degree.
In addition to specialized training, a growing number of workers receive broader training to perform a number of jobs. The need for flexibility in more automated workplaces has meant that many food manufacturing workers are learning new tasks and being trained to effectively work in teams. Some specialized training exists for bakers and some other positions.
Advancement may come in the form of higher earnings or more responsibility. Helpers usually progress to jobs as machine operators, but the speed of this progression can vary considerably. Some workers who perform exceptionally well on the production line, or those with special training and experience, may advance to supervisory positions. Plant size and the existence of formal promotion tracks may influence advancement opportunities.
Requirements for other jobs are similar to requirements for the same types of jobs in other industries. Employers usually hire high school graduates for secretarial and other clerical work. Graduates of 2-year associate degree or other postsecondary programs often are sought for science technician and related positions. College graduates or highly experienced workers are preferred for middle-management or professional jobs in personnel, accounting, marketing, or sales.
Table 3 shows that production workers in food manufacturing averaged $12.54 an hour, compared with $14.95 per hour for all workers in private industry in 2002. Weekly earnings among food manufacturing workers, were lower than average, $497 compared with $506 for all workers in private industry in 2002. Food manufacturing workers averaged about 39.6 hours a week, compared with only 33.9 for all workers in the private sector. Weekly earnings ranged from $334 in seafood product preparation and packaging plants to $802 in grain and oilseed milling plants. Hours worked play a large part in determining earnings. For example, grain- and oilseed-milling workers, who averaged 44.2 hours a week, had higher hourly and weekly earnings than did workers in bakeries and tortilla manufacturing companies, who averaged 36.8 hours a week. Earnings in selected occupations in food manufacturing appear in table 4.
Table 3. Average earnings of production or nonsupervisory workers in food manufacturing by industry segment, 2002
Total, private industry
Grain and oilseed milling
Sugar and confectionery products
Fruit and vegetable preserving and specialty
Other food products
Bakeries and tortilla manufacturing
Animal slaughtering and processing
Seafood product preparation and packaging
Table 4. Median hourly earnings of the largest occupations in food manufacturing, 2002
First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers
Industrial truck and tractor operators
Packaging and filling machine operators and tenders
Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand
Slaughterers and meat packers
Packers and packagers, hand
Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers
In 2002, about 18 percent of workers in the food manufacturing industry belonged to a union or were covered by a union contract, compared with about 15 percent of all workers in the private sector. Prominent unions in the industry include the United Food and Commercial Workers; the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union.
Overall wage and salary employment in food manufacturing is expected to increase by 5 percent over the 2002-12 period, compared with 16 percent employment growth projected for the entire economy. Despite the rising demand for manufactured food products by a growing population, automation and increasing productivity are limiting employment growth. Nevertheless, numerous job openings will arise in many segments of food manufacturing, as experienced workers transfer to other industries or retire or leave the labor force for other reasons.
Job growth will vary by occupation but will be concentrated among food manufacturing workersthe largest group of workers in the industry. Because many of the sorting, cutting, and chopping tasks performed by these workers have proven difficult to automate, employment among handworkers will rise along with the growing demand for food products. Handworking occupations include slaughterers and meat packers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers, whose employment will rise as the consumption of meat, poultry, and fish climbs and more processing takes place at the manufacturing level. Other production workers also will benefit from the shift in food processing from retail establishments to manufacturing plants.
Although automation has had little effect on most handworkers, it is having a broader impact on numerous other occupations in the industry. Fierce competition has led food manufacturing plants to invest in technologically advanced machinery to be more productive. The new machines have been applied to tasks as varied as packaging, inspection, and inventory control. As a result, employment will not increase as rapidly among some machine operators, such as packaging machine operators, as for industrial machinery mechanics who repair and maintain the new machinery. Computers also are being widely implemented throughout the industry, reducing employment growth of some mid-level managers and resulting in decreased employment for administrative support workers, but increasing the demand for workers with excellent technical skills. Taken as a whole, automation will continue to have a significant impact on workers in the industry as competition becomes even more intense in coming years.
Food manufacturing firms will be able to use this new automation to better meet the changing demands of a growing and increasingly diverse population. As convenience becomes more important, consumers increasingly demand highly processed foods such as peeled and cut carrots, microwaveable soups, or “ready-to-heat” dinners. Such a shift in consumption will contribute to the demand for food manufacturing workers and will lead to the development of thousands of new processed foods. Domestic producers also will attempt to market these goods abroad as the volume of international trade continues to grow. The increasing size and diversity of the American population has driven demand for a greater variety of foods, including more ethnic foods. The combination of expanding export markets and shifting and increasing domestic consumption will help employment among food manufacturing workers to rise slightly over the next decade and will lead to significant changes throughout the food manufacturing industry.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Guide to Industries, 2004-05 Edition, Food Manufacturing, on the Internet at
(visited July 09, 2004).