There are approximately 707,000 food processing workers in the United States. Job growth statistics indicate that in the next decade, the industry will grow at a rate of 4%, which is below the average rate of growth for all jobs.
Most food processing jobs require little in terms of education or training. Food processing occupations vary widely. Workers who cut, boil, fry, skin, can, and otherwise process food in a raw state into a product to be sold to consumers fall into this industry. Food processors include bakers, meat processors, and individuals who work in slaughter houses.
Bakers produce cakes, breads, rolls, dough, pastries, and other baked items. Most bakers work in a commercial bakery. Mixing machines capable of handling very large quantities of ingredients are used, and all tools and equipment are designed to efficiently produce large volumes of goods. Bakers in smaller bakeries or specialty shops work with higher quality materials and create artisan products rather than mass-produced ones. Often, recipes are personally created and contain unusual or relatively expensive ingredients.
Meat processors cut carcasses into case-ready sizes for wholesalers and retailers. There are a number of variations in this work. Slaughterers kill farm animals and divide their meat into oversized wholesale cuts. These cuts are then reduced to case-ready size for retailers who do not have a butcher on-site. Slaughterers and meat packers also grind hamburger, stuff sausages, and prepare other meat products. Workers use cleavers, meat saws, butcher knives, and other very sharp tools. Those working with poultry slaughter trim and debone manually; packaging is largely automated in the poultry business.
Ready-to-cook cuts of filleted, chunked, marinated, or breaded meat, fish, and poultry can be prepared at a meat packing factory, a butcher shop, or in a grocery store.
Fish processing begins on fishing boats soon after the fish are caught. They are quickly processed to be flash-frozen so that they do not deteriorate in quality.
Restaurants, grocery stores, and food service facilities use butchers to cut large pieces into steaks, chops, roasts, loins, and chopped meat. Butchers use slicers, knives, and power cutters to remove bones. Cuts in which the bone remains are done with cleavers. Retail butchers also weigh and wrap the meat create pleasing display arrangements in the refrigerated case. All food workers are required to sanitize all tools, pans, and cook surfaces to be in compliance with local, state, and federal laws.
Because there is such a wide range of food preparation occupations, working conditions also vary widely. Equipment and surroundings must be kept clean, and workers must be properly attired and wash hands frequently. Bakeries are typically hot; some are also quite loud. Many bakers rise very early to have fresh-baked goods available for customers before work. Working evenings and weekends is common, as is working split shifts. Slaughtering and processing plants are very loud due to the power machines in use. Danger is in the form of very sharp tools, conveyor belts, and slippery floors. Butchers working in retail shops and fish cleaners in seafood stores may have barely sufficient room to work behind the customer counter. Rooms are often cold and can be damp. Repetitive motion and extended time periods of standing can result in muscle ache or structural problems. Potential hazards include cuts, falls, burns, and even amputation. These hazards can be minimized with careful adherence to safety protocol.
Most food industry employees are trained on the job. Bakers might apprentice in a craft bakery or take classes at a technical or vocational school to learn. Butchers at the retail level who are considered skilled typically train for one to two years, moving from simple jobs to progressively more complicated ones. Food machine operators are also trained while working, from a month to a year, depending upon how complicated the machinery and how many machines must be mastered.
An associate’s or bachelor’s degree in food science, dairy, or another appropriate area can lead to a supervisory or managerial position. Bakers can become certified by the Retail Bakers of America in up to four levels of competence. A certified master baker has obtained a certified baker designation, completed 30 hours of sanitation coursework that has been approved by a culinary school or government agency, as well as 30 hours of professional development classes, and has at least eight years of retail baking experience. Supervisory advancement to department manager or team leader is a possibility for workers who demonstrate a strong work ethic, leadership ability, and an interest in continued learning. Another way to advance is by becoming a supermarket buyer.
The median annual salary of bakers is around $24,000. Those at the low end earn below $16,000, while those at the top can earn $38,000. The median annual salary of butchers and meat cutters is about $29,000. Those with many years of experience and training earn more than $45,000. The median annual salary for less skilled food preparation occupations, such as trimmers and cutters, is around $22,000, with a low of less than $17,000 to a high of more than $30,000.