Food Processing Careers

Significant Points

  • Most workers in manual food processing jobs require little or no training prior to being hired.
  • As more jobs involving cutting and processing meat shift from retail stores to food processing plants, job growth will be concentrated among lesser skilled workers, who are employed primarily in manufacturing.
  • Highly skilled bakers should be in demand.

Nature of the Work

Food processing occupations include many different types of workers who process raw food products into the finished goods sold by grocers, wholesalers, restaurants, or institutional food services. These workers perform a variety of tasks and are responsible for producing many of the food products found in every household. Some of these workers are bakers, others slaughter or process meat, and still others operate food processing equipment.

Bakers mix and bake ingredients according to recipes to produce varying types and quantities of breads, pastries, and other baked goods. Bakers commonly are employed in commercial bakeries that distribute breads and pastries through established wholesale and retail outlets, mail order, or manufacturers' outlets. In these manufacturing facilities, bakers produce mostly standardized baked goods in large quantities, using high-volume mixing machines, ovens, and other equipment. Grocery stores and specialty shops produce smaller quantities of breads, pastries, and other baked goods for consumption on their premises or for sale as specialty baked goods. Although the quantities prepared and sold in these stores are often small, they often come in a wide variety of flavors and sizes.

Other food processing workers convert animal carcasses into manageable pieces of meat, known as boxed meat or case-ready meat, suitable for sale to wholesalers and retailers. The nature of their jobs varies significantly depending on the stage of the process in which they are involved. In animal slaughtering and processing plants, slaughterers and meat packers slaughter cattle, hogs, and sheep, and cut carcasses into large wholesale cuts, such as rounds, loins, ribs, tenders, and chucks, to facilitate the handling, distribution, marketing, and sale of meat. In most plants, some slaughterers and meat packers further process the large parts into case-ready cuts that are ready for retail stores. Retailers and grocers increasingly prefer such prepackaged meat products because a butcher isn't needed to further portion the cuts for sale. Slaughterers and meat packers also produce hamburger meat and meat trimmings, and prepare sausages, luncheon meats, and other fabricated meat products. They usually work on assembly lines, with each individual responsible for only a few of the many cuts needed to process a carcass. Depending on the type of cut, these workers use knives; cleavers; meat saws; bandsaws; or other potentially dangerous equipment.

Poultry cutters and trimmers slaughter and cut up chickens, turkeys, and other types of poultry. Although the packaging end of the poultry processing industry is becoming increasingly automated, many jobs, such as slaughtering, trimming, and deboning, are still done manually. Most poultry cutters and trimmers perform routine cuts on poultry as it moves along production lines.

Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers also prepare ready-to-cook foods, often at processing plants, but increasingly at grocery and specialty food stores. This preparation often entails filleting meat, poultry, or fish; cutting it into bite-sized pieces or tenders; preparing and adding vegetables; and applying sauces and flavorings, marinades, or breading. These case-ready products are gaining in popularity as they offer quick and easy preparation for consumers while, in many cases, also offering healthier options.

Manufacturing and retail establishments are both likely to employ fish cutters and trimmers, also called fish cleaners. These workers primarily scale, cut, and dress fish by removing the head, scales, and other inedible portions and then cut the fish into steaks or fillets. In retail markets, these workers also may wait on customers and clean fish to order. Some fish processing is done aboard ships where fish can be caught, processed, and often flash frozen to preserve freshness.

Butchers and meat cutters generally process meat at later stages of production, although some are employed at meat processing plants. Most work for grocery stores, wholesale establishments that supply meat to restaurants, or institutional food service facilities that separate wholesale cuts of meat into retail cuts or smaller pieces, known as primals. These butchers cut meat into steaks and chops, shape and tie roasts, and grind beef for sale as chopped meat. Boneless cuts are prepared using knives, slicers, or power cutters, while bandsaws and cleavers are required to cut bone-in pieces of meat. Butchers and meat cutters in retail food stores also may weigh, wrap, and label the cuts of meat; arrange them in refrigerated cases for display; and prepare special cuts to fill orders by customers.

Others who work in food processing include food batchmakers, who set up and operate equipment that mixes, blends, or cooks ingredients used in the manufacture of food products according to formulas or recipes; food cooking machine operators and tenders, who operate or tend cooking equipment, such as steam-cooking vats, deep-fry cookers, pressure cookers, kettles, and boilers to prepare a wide range of cooked food products, and food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders, who use equipment to reduce the moisture content of food or tobacco products or to prepare food for canning. The machines they use include hearth ovens, kiln driers, roasters, char kilns, steam ovens, and vacuum drying equipment. These workers monitor equipment for temperature, humidity, or other factors and make the appropriate adjustments to ensure proper cooking and processing.

All workers who work with food must regularly clean and sanitize utensils, work surfaces, and equipment used to process food to comply with health and sanitation guidelines to prevent the spread of disease.

Work environment. Working conditions vary by occupation and by type and size of establishment, but all employees are required to maintain good personal hygiene and keep equipment clean. Facilities that process food, regardless of industry or location, are regularly inspected to ensure that equipment and employees comply with health and sanitation regulations.

Most bakers work in bakeries, grocery stores, and restaurants. Bakeries are often hot and noisy. Bakers typically work under strict order deadlines and critical time-sensitive baking requirements, both of which can induce stress. Bakers usually work odd hours and may work early mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays.

Butchers and meat cutters in animal slaughtering and processing plants and in large grocery stores, work in large meat cutting rooms equipped with power machines, extremely sharp knives, and conveyors. In smaller retail shops, butchers or fish cleaners may work in a cramped space behind the meat or fish counter where they also can keep track of customers.

Butchers and meat cutters, poultry and fish cutters and trimmers, and slaughterers and meatpackers often work in cold, damp rooms where meat is kept to prevent spoiling. In addition, long periods of standing and repetitious physical tasks make the work tiring. Working with sharp knives on slippery floors makes butchers and meat cutters more susceptible to injury than almost all other workers in the economy; however, injury rates for the animal slaughtering and processing industry have been declining. Injuries include cuts and occasional amputations, which occur when knives, cleavers, or power tools are used improperly. Also, repetitive slicing and lifting often lead to cumulative trauma injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back strains. To reduce the incidence of cumulative trauma injuries, some employers have reduced employee workloads, added prescribed rest periods, redesigned jobs and tools, and promoted increased awareness of early warning signs as steps to prevent further injury. Nevertheless, workers in the occupation still face the potential threat that some injuries may be disabling.

Workers who operate food processing machinery typically work in production areas that are specially designed for food preservation or processing. Food batchmakers, in particular, work in kitchen-type, assembly-line production facilities. The ovens, as well as the motors of blenders, mixers, and other equipment, often make work areas very warm and noisy. Hazards created by the equipment that these workers use can cause injuries such as cuts and scrapes from cleaning and handling sharp tools and utensils and burns from being in contact with hot surfaces and liquids.

Food batchmakers; food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators; and food cooking machine operators and tenders spend a great deal of time on their feet and generally work a regular 40-hour week that may include night and early morning shifts.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

No formal education is required for most food processing jobs. Employers generally provide most of the training for these occupations upon being hired.

Education and training. Bakers need to become skilled in baking, icing, and decorating. They often start their careers as apprentices or trainees. Apprentice bakers usually start in craft bakeries, while trainees usually begin in store bakeries, such as those in supermarkets. Many apprentice bakers participate in correspondence study and may work towards a certificate in baking.

The skills needed to be a baker are often underestimated. Bakers need to learn how to combine ingredients and to learn how ingredients are affected by heat. They need to learn how to operate and maintain a range of equipment used in the production process. Courses in nutrition are helpful for those selling baked goods or developing new recipes. If running a small business, they need to know how to operate a business. All bakers must follow government health and sanitation regulations.

Most butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers acquire their skills through on-the-job training programs. The length of training varies significantly. Simple cutting operations require a few days to learn, while more complicated tasks, such as eviscerating slaughtered animals, generally require several months of training. The training period for highly skilled butchers at the retail level may be 1 or 2 years.

Generally, trainees begin by doing less difficult jobs, such as making simple cuts or removing bones. Under the guidance of experienced workers, trainees learn the proper use and care of tools and equipment, while also learning how to prepare various cuts of meat. After demonstrating skill with various meat cutting tools, trainees learn to divide carcasses into wholesale cuts and wholesale cuts into retail and individual portions. Trainees also may learn to roll and tie roasts, prepare sausage, and cure meat. Those employed in retail food establishments often are taught to perform basic business operations, such as inventory control, meat buying, and recordkeeping. In addition, growing concern about food-borne pathogens in meats has led employers to offer numerous safety seminars and extensive training in food safety to employees.

On-the-job training is common among food machine operators and tenders. They learn to run the different types of equipment by watching and helping other workers. Training can last anywhere from a month to a year, depending on the complexity of the tasks and the number of products involved. A degree in an appropriate area-dairy processing for those working in dairy product operations, for example-is helpful for advancement to a lead worker or a supervisory role. Most food batchmakers participate in on-the-job training, usually from about a month to a year. Some food batchmakers learn their trade through an approved apprenticeship program.

Other qualifications. Bakers need to be able to follow instructions, have an eye for detail, and communicate well with others. Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers need manual dexterity, good depth perception, color discrimination, and good hand-eye coordination. They also need physical strength to lift and move heavy pieces of meat. Butchers and fish cleaners who wait on customers should have a pleasant personality, a neat appearance, and the ability to communicate clearly. In some States, a health certificate is required for employment.

Certification and advancement. Bakers have the option of obtaining certification through the Retail Bakers of America. While not mandatory, obtaining certification assures the public and prospective employers that the baker has sufficient skills and knowledge to work at a retail baking establishment.

The Retail Bakers of America offers certification for four levels of competence with a focus on several broad areas, including baking sanitation, management, retail sales, and staff training. Those who wish to become certified must satisfy a combination of education and experience requirements prior to taking an examination. The education and experience requirements vary by the level of certification desired. For example, a certified journey baker requires no formal education but a minimum of 1 year of work experience. By contrast, a certified master baker must have earned the certified baker designation, and must have completed 30 hours of sanitation coursework approved by a culinary school or government agency, 30 hours of professional development courses or workshops, and a minimum of 8 years of commercial or retail baking experience.

Food processing workers in retail or wholesale establishments may progress to supervisory jobs, such as department managers or team leaders in supermarkets. A few of these workers may become buyers for wholesalers or supermarket chains. Some food processing workers go on to open their own markets or bakeries. In processing plants, workers may advance to supervisory positions or become team leaders.

Job Outlook

Increased demand for processed food and meat by a growing population will increase the need for food processing workers; however, processing plant and distribution efficiencies will offset growing output and cause employment of these workers to grow more slowly than the average between 2008 and 2018. In addition, job opportunities should be good as the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force should generate additional job openings.

Employment change. Overall employment in the food processing occupations is projected to increase 4 percent during the 2008-18 decade, more slowly than the average for all occupations. As the Nation's population grows, the demand for meat, poultry, and seafood, baked goods, and other processed foods will increase requiring additional people to work in these occupations. Additionally, consumers are increasingly seeking out more convenient methods of preparing meals, which is driving up demand for convenient ready-to-eat or heat foods. These foods are increasingly being prepared at the factory, as well as the local grocery store for carry-out, thus increasing the need for workers in both locations. However, increasing productivity at meat and food processing plants should offset some of the need for more workers at these plants.

Slaughterers and meat packers, meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers, and butchers and meat cutters are all expected to experience some growth in employment. For these occupations in particular, faster growth will take place at the processing plant and away from retail stores, as meats are increasingly processed at processing plants or centralized facilities for delivery to stores. This shift from retail stores to food processing plants will cause demand for lesser skilled workers, who are employed primarily in meat packing manufacturing plants, to be greater than for butchers and meat cutters.

Many of these same reasons apply to employment in food processing jobs; however, these jobs are more automated than the meat processing occupations, thus productivity improvements will likely impact these workers more. Food batchmakers will experience average employment growth largely due to improved packaging and distribution operations; employment of food cooking machine operators and tenders will grow more slowly than the average; and food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders will show little or no growth.

A growing number of stores that sell cookies, bread, and other specialty baked goods, will spur demand for bakers, particularly in grocery and other specialty stores, but increased use of off-site contract bakers with larger baking capacities will offset increased demand and cause employment to show little or no change.

Job prospects. Jobs should be available in all food processing specialties because of the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Highly skilled bakers should be especially in demand because of growing demand for specialty products and the time it takes to learn to make these products.