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Food-Processing Careers, Jobs and Employment Information

Career and Job Highlights

  • Employees of meatpacking firms have the highest frequency of injuries and illnesses of all workers.
  • There is minimal or no training needed to be employed in a manual food processing occupation.
  • Most employment growth will be associated with slightly skilled workers that normally work in production plants.

Food-Processing Career and Job Description

Food processors work to turn raw goods into finished products for grocers, wholesalers, restaurants, and institutional food services. Food processors do take on many different duties, and are involved in the production of most every food item found in a typical home.

There are many different steps involved in converting an animal into pieces of meat, called boxed meat that can be distributed to retailers or wholesalers. These steps involve work done by butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers. Work done inside processing plants is done by meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers. Work done in retail stores is carried by butchers and meat cutters. Consequently, there is a wide variety of tasks performed and conditions worked in depending on the job.

Slaughterers and meatpackers work in processing plants to slaughter and cut up cattle, hogs, goats, and sheep into smaller units like rounds, loins, ribs, and chucks making the product easier to handle, distribute, and market. Some plants also give the slaughterers and meatpackers the additional task of preparing product for retail use. Additionally, slaughterers and meatpackers work to make hamburger and meat trimmings, utilized in the making of sausages, luncheon meats, and other manufactured meat goods. These workers normally work in an assembly line format, dividing the many cuts required to process the product between the various line workers. The tools used, which can be dangerous at times, depend on the cuts being made and include knives, cleavers, meat saws and band saws.

Butchers and meat cutters are employed by supermarkets, wholesale firms that supply mean to restaurants, and institutional food service facilities, and divide the meat into retail cuts or single serving sizes. These workers perform various tasks like cutting meat into steaks and chops, shape and tie roasts, or grinding up beef to sale as chopped meat. Meats that have no bones can be processed using knives, slicers, or power cutters, while meats with bones in them are cut by band saws. In addition to cutting the meat, those working in retail stores like supermarkets may also be responsible for weighing, wrapping, and labeling the meat as well as preparing meats for display in the display case, or take special request from customers.

Poultry cutters and trimmers work with chickens, turkeys, and other kinds of poultry. Processing poultry is quite automated, but there are still some jobs such as trimming, packing, and de-boning poultry that are carried out by working hands. The majority of poultry cutters work in assembly line format, performing one specific cut on poultry as it is processed through the line.

In contrast to the aforementioned jobs, fish cutters and trimmers, otherwise known as fish cleaners typically work in manufacturing and retail facilities. Fish cleaners are responsible for cutting the fish into fillets or steaks after they have properly removed all inedible parts of the fish, especially the scales and the head. Fish cleaners might also perform customer requests and clean fish as ordered in retail establishments.

Additionally, meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers also make ready-to-heat meats, which might involve filleting the meat or slicing it into small pieces, and preparing the meat with seasoning, sauces, marinades, breading and vegetables as desired.

Bakers, of course, follow recipes, by mixing ingredients, to make various amounts of pastries, breads and other baked goods. Normally bakers work for grocery stores, bread stores, or specialty shops to make baked goods labeled for retail or consumed onsite. Bakers that work in manufacturing plants utilize large mixing machines, ovens, and otherwise oversized equipment to produce bake goods in large volumes. These baked goods can normally be purchased through grocery stores of manufacturer storefronts.

Another food processor position is that of food batch makers. Following recipes, they prepare and run machinery which mixes, blends, or cooks ingredients utilized in the manufacturing process of goods. Food cooking machine operators and tenders, are in charge of the operation and monitoring of cooking equipment like steam cooking vats, deep-fry cookers, pressure cookers, kettles, and boilers that are used to produce various goods like meat, sugar, cheese, and grain. Food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders utilize various equipment to decrease the moisture level of food or tobacco products or to process food destined for canning. There is a wide array of machinery and equipment utilized, including hearth ovens, kiln driers, roasters, char kilns, steam ovens, and vacuum drying equipment.

The kind of conditions one works in as a food processor depends on the type of facility and its size. For instance, butchers and meat cutters working in slaughterhouses or processing facilities typically work in big meat cutting rooms that have power equipment and conveyors. In small retail stores, work by butchers or fish cleaners might be performed in limited space. Of course, regardless of one’s location, work areas and surfaces must always be kept clean and sanitized to avoid all viral and bacterial infections.

Other workers, such as butchers, meat cutters, slaughterers, meatpackers, and poultry and fish cutters and trimmers, must work in refrigerated areas that are cold and damp, to avoid the spoilage of meat. The areas are damp due to the presence of condensation from blood and fat. The presence of cold wet floors can increase the probability of slipping and falling. Additionally, the work can be very fatiguing due to the cold environment, constant standing, and repetitious nature of the job. Consequently, these workers are susceptible to a higher rate of injury than most workers. In 2002, meatpacking facilities were near the top for most on the job injuries and illnesses. The rate of incidences for on the job injuries and illnesses was 1 in every 7 workers.

When power tools, knives, and cleavers are used inappropriately, injuries resulting in minor and major cuts and even the periodic amputation can occur. Other injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome, can be caused by repetitious cutting and lifting of the product. To help prevent the occurrence of cumulative trauma injuries, many firms are limiting the amount of work done by employees, employing scheduled break times, redesigning tasks and tools, and promoting added awareness of early warning signs so more steps can be taken to avoid any further injury. At any rate, the threat of major injuries is ever present in these occupations.

The majority of traditional bakers perform their duties in bakeries, cake shops, hot-bread shops, hotels, restaurants, and cafeterias. Additionally, bakers work in the bakeries of grocery stores and cruise ships. The working conditions for bakers included hot temperatures and loud noises. Bakers are exposed to stressful conditions at times, since much work must be done according to deadlines and vital time-sensitive instructions. Most bakery work is done in shifts, including early morning or evening hours as well as work on the weekends and holidays. Some bakers work in teams, while others work solo. Some bakers also have supervisory responsibilities, supervising helpers or teaching young apprentices and trainees. Additionally, bakers might have to assist customers in retail sites.

Many food-processing workers, like food batch makers, food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators, and food cooking machine operators and tenders, normally work in areas of production that specialize in food preservation or processing. For instance, food batch makers, perform their duties that integrate the nature of a kitchen with the traits of an assembly line. Of course, all work involving food must be carried out according federal and local rules. Work conditions can be quite warm and loud due to the presence of ovens, blenders, mixers, and a variety of other appliances. There are some ever present dangers, like being burned by the equipment utilized in processing or preservation. Work done by food batch makers, food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators, and food cooking machine operators and tenders is often performed while standing, and is includes work weeks of 40 hours with the possibility of evening and graveyard shifts.

Food-Processing Training and Job Qualifications

The training needed differs by occupation. For the most part, minimal or no training is required to become a food processor.

The majority of butchers and poultry and fish cutters and trimmers learn the tricks of the trade via formal and informal training programs. The amount of training differs greatly. It only takes a couple of days to pick up easy cuts, while harder duties and skills like eviscerating slaughtered animals, can take many months to pick up. Butchers working in retail who have a high skill set may have one to two years of training under their belts.

Typically, entry level employees start by mastering minor jobs, like learning easy cuts or removing bones from carcasses. Novices are taught by more experience employees how to care for and use tools and how to make different kinds of cuts. Once trainees have shown they can handle a variety of meat cutting tools, they are trained how to separate carcasses into wholesale cuts, as well as into retail and individual cuts. Other skills learned may include rolling and tying roasts, preparing sausages, and curing meat. Workers at the retail level might also be trained in inventory control, meat purchasing, and record keeping. Additionally, due to increasing concern related to the safety and quality of meats, more employers are now sending their workers to food safety seminars and training programs.

Those working as meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers should have good manual dexterity, good depth and color perception, and good hand-eye coordination. Being physically strong also is useful as frequently heavy portions of meat must be moved. Workers such as butchers and fish cleaners who interact directly with customers should be polite and tactful, have a professional appearance and good communication skills. To be employed, some states do require a health certificate.

Most bakers begin initially as trainees or apprentices. Trainee bakers typically begin work grocery store bakeries while apprentice bakeries begin work in craft bakeries. Bakers should have skills in baking, icing, and decorating pastries. Bakers should be good at following directions, being detailed, and skilled in communication. It is also important that bakers have a good understanding of bakery products, ingredients, and equipment. Quite a few apprentice bakers learn through correspondence study programs as they progress towards earning a baking certificate.

Other ways to obtain training include work as a baker’s helper or any process that includes the handling of food. Routinely the skills and qualifications required to become a certified baker are overlooked. A background in chemistry, ingredients and nutrition, government health and sanitation regulations, business concepts, and production processes, especially in the operation and maintenance of equipment is important to the success of a baker. Much of the equipment and machinery used by up to date plants and facilities is automated and computerized.

Other workers that receive their training on the job include food-machine operators and tenders. They are taught how to operate the various kinds of devices by observing and assisting other workers. The amount of training, which varies according to the variety of complicated duties and amount of different products used, can take just one month or up to a full year. It is also useful that workers obtain a degree in their desired field, such as a degree in dairy processing for those interested in working in dairy production, and can help propel that worker to a position as a supervisor. The majority of food batch makers receive training on the job over the course of a month up to one year. Other food batch makers acquire their skills through apprenticeship programs.
Workers in the retail stores or wholesale firms may become supervisors, department managers or team leaders. Some may move on to become buyers for wholesalers or supermarket establishments. Others will open their own bakery. Those working in processing facilities might be promoted to supervisor or team leader.

Food-Processing Job and Employment Opportunities

Though 2012, total employment in the food-processing occupations is projected to increase as fast as average for all occupations. Additionally, as meat imports become cheaper this will adversely affect employment growth. Most of the growth will found at the manufacturing level, since many of the cutting and processing tasks previously done by retail stores are being taken care of processing plants. However, there should be job prospects available at every level as the need for replacement workers rises and other workers leave the workforce or move to a new occupation.

The need for meat, poultry, and seafood should grow in conjunction with the increase in population. Demand for products such as chicken and ready-to-heat goods is projected to be on the rise as the poultry industry successfully markets their products. More and more red meat will be consumed as production processes facilitate the introduction of products that are low in fat and more nutritious than ever. The demand for slaughterers and meatpackers should be on the rise as processing industry moves towards the preparation of case-ready meat.

There is projected growth, rising as fast as the average, in the employment of workers employed by slaughtering and processing facilities, as the demand for lesser skilled meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers grows. There should be stable demand for poultry workers thanks to the popularization of ready-to-heat goods that require a lot of hands on labor. Similarly, demand for fish cutters will be stable as the processing industry takes on the preparation of ready-to-heat goods previously carried out by retail stores. Other innovations, like that of fish farming, otherwise known as “aquaculture” will help the industry keep up with the increased demand for prospects for fish cutters.

Employment for skilled workers like butchers and meat cutters is falling. Advancements in automation technology and the move to combine slaughtering and processing facilities is allowing a shift in employment from well paid butchers to lower paid slaughterers and meatpackers who work in processing plants. Presently the majority of meat is cut before being shipped to a grocery store, but the shipment of meat already packaged, with extra fat taken out, to retail stores and wholesalers is gaining momentum. This change is contributing to the elimination of work and jobs for retail butchers.

Total employment for bakers is projected to grow close to the average rate of growth for all occupations thanks to the increase in large wholesale bakers, in-store and specialty shops, and traditional bakeries and despite the fact that new equipment which can produce large quantities is curbing the need for makers in production plants. The growth of specialty shops like bread and bagel stores, in combination with existing bakeries which sell cookies, muffins, and cinnamon rolls, is contributing to the need for more bread and pastry bakers.

The growth in employment food batch makers, food and tobacco cooking and roasting machine operators and tenders, is projected to increase at a slower rate than the average. Much of this work is being done by manufacturing firms rather than retail stores as in the past, thus any increase in employment is being countered by increases in automated productivity. The rest of food processing employees can expect employment growth to grow on pace with the average.

Historical Earnings Information

In 2002, the average earnings of butchers and meat cutters were $25,500, but earnings depend on the industry, skill level, location, and educational level. The range for the middle 50 percent was $19,440 to $34,140. The top10 percent made in excess of $42,330 and the bottom 10 percent made below $15,490 annually. Earnings for butchers and meat cutters are higher for those working for retail establishments rather than manufacturing plants.