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Sources of Additional Information
- Most employees 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.
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 or 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.
Butchers as well as meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers are employed at different stages in the process by which animal carcasses are converted into manageable pieces of meat, known as boxed meat, that are suitable for sale to wholesalers and retailers. Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers commonly work in animal slaughtering and processing plants, while butchers and meatcutters usually are employed in retail establishments. As a result, the nature of these jobs varies significantly.
In animal slaughtering and processing plants, slaughterers and meatpackers slaughter cattle, hogs, goats, and sheep and cut the carcasses into large wholesale cuts, such as rounds, loins, ribs, and chucks, to facilitate the handling, distribution, and marketing of meat. In some of these plants, slaughterers and meatpackers also further process the large parts into cuts that are ready for retail use. These workers also produce hamburger meat and meat trimmings, which are used to prepare sausages, luncheon meats, and other fabricated meat products. Slaughterers and meatpackers 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.
In grocery stores, wholesale establishments that supply meat to restaurants, and institutional food service facilities, butchers and meatcutters separate wholesale cuts of meat into retail cuts or individually sized servings. These workers cut meat into steaks and chops, shape and tie roasts, and grind beef for sale as chopped meat. Boneless cuts are prepared with the use of knives, slicers, or power cutters, while bandsaws are required to carve bone-in pieces of meat. Butchers and meatcutters 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 unique orders by customers.
Poultry cutters and trimmers slaughter and cut up chickens, turkeys, and other types of poultry. Although the poultry processing industry is becoming increasingly automated, many jobs, such as trimming, packing, and deboning, are still done manually. As in the animal slaughtering and processing industry, most poultry cutters and trimmers perform routine cuts on poultry as it moves along production lines.
Unlike some of the other occupations just listed, fish cutters and trimmers, also called fish cleaners, are likely to be employed in both manufacturing and retail establishments. These workers primarily scale, cut, and dress fish by removing the head, scales, and other inedible portions and cutting the fish into steaks or fillets. In retail markets, these workers may also wait on customers and clean fish to order.
Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers also prepare ready-to-heat foods. This preparation often entails filleting meat or fish; cutting it into bite-sized pieces; preparing and adding vegetables; and applying sauces, marinades, or breading.
Bakers mix and bake ingredients in accordance with recipes to produce varying quantities of breads, pastries, and other baked goods. Bakers commonly are employed in grocery stores and specialty shops, and produce small quantities of breads, pastries, and other baked goods for consumption on premises or for sale as specialty baked goods. In manufacturing, bakers produce goods in large quantities, using high-volume mixing machines, ovens, and other equipment. Goods produced in large quantities usually are available for sale through distributors, grocery stores, or manufacturers’ outlets.
Others in food processing occupations 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 to cooking equipment, such as steam-cooking vats, deep-fry cookers, pressure cookers, kettles, and boilers to prepare food products, such as meat, sugar, cheese, and grain; 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 process food in preparation for canning. Some of the machines that are used include hearth ovens, kiln driers, roasters, char kilns, steam ovens, and vacuum drying equipment.
Working conditions vary by type and size of establishment. In animal slaughtering and processing plants and large retail food establishments, butchers and meatcutters work in large meatcutting rooms equipped with power machines and conveyors. In small retail markets, the butcher or fish cleaner may work in a cramped space behind the meat or fish counter. To prevent viral and bacterial infections, work areas must be kept clean and sanitary.
Butchers and meatcutters, poultry and fish cutters and trimmers, and slaughterer and meatpackers often work in cold, damp rooms. The work areas are refrigerated to prevent meat from spoiling and are damp because meat cutting generates large amounts of blood, condensation, and fat. Cool, damp floors increase the likelihood of slips and falls. In addition, cool temperatures, long periods of standing, and repetitious physical tasks make the work tiring. As a result, butchers as well as meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers are more susceptible to injury than are most other workers.
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. 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 so that steps can be taken to prevent further injury. Nevertheless, workers in the occupation still face the serious threat of disabling injuries.
Most traditional bakers work in bakeries, cake shops, hot-bread shops, hotels, restaurants, and cafeterias, and in the bakery departments of supermarkets. Bakers may work under hot and noisy conditions. Also, bakers typically work under strict order deadlines and critical time-sensitive baking requirements, both of which can induce stress. Bakers usually work in shifts and may work early mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays. While many bakers often work as part of a team, they also may work alone when baking particular items. These workers may supervise assistants and teach apprentices and trainees. Bakers in retail establishments may be required to serve customers.
Other food processing workers—such as food batchmakers; food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders; and food cooking machine operators and tenders—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. Because this work involves food, work areas must meet governmental sanitary regulations. The ovens, as well as the motors of blenders, mixers, and other equipment, often make work areas very warm and noisy. There are some hazards, such as burns, created by the equipment that these workers use. 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 evening and night shifts.
Food processing workers held 725,000 jobs in 2004. Employment among the various types of food processing occupations was distributed as follows:
Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers
Slaughterers and meat packers
Butchers and meat cutters
Food cooking machine operators and tenders
Food and tobacco roasting, baking,
and drying machine operators and tenders
Thirty-five percent of all food processing workers were employed in animal slaughtering and processing plants. Another 23 percent were employed at grocery stores. Most of the remainder worked in other food manufacturing industries. Butchers, meatcutters, and bakers are employed in almost every city and town in the Nation, while most other food processing jobs are concentrated in communities with food-processing plants.
Training varies widely among food processing occupations. However, most manual food processing workers require little or no training prior to being hired.
Most butchers as well as poultry and fish cutters and trimmers acquire their skills on the job through formal and informal 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 to learn. The training period for highly skilled butchers at the retail level may be 1 or 2 years.
Generally, on-the-job 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 and how to prepare various cuts of meat. After demonstrating skill with various meatcutting 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 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.
Skills that are important to meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers include manual dexterity, good depth perception, color discrimination, and good hand-eye coordination. Physical strength often is needed 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.
Bakers often start as apprentices or trainees. Apprentice bakers usually start in craft bakeries, while trainees usually begin in store bakeries, such as those in supermarkets. Bakers need to be skilled in baking, icing, and decorating. They also need to be able to follow instructions, have an eye for detail, and communicate well with others. Knowledge of bakery products and ingredients, as well as mechanical mixing and baking equipment, is important. Many apprentice bakers participate in correspondence study and may work towards a certificate in baking. Working as a baker’s assistant or at other activities that involve handling food also is a useful tool for training. The complexity of the skills required for certification as a baker often is underestimated. Bakers need to know about applied chemistry; ingredients and nutrition; government health and sanitation regulations; business concepts; and production processes, including how to operate and maintain machinery. Modern food plants typically use high-speed automated equipment that often is operated by computers.
Food machine operators and tenders usually are trained on the job. 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 the 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.
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.
Overall employment in the food processing occupations is projected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations through 2014. Increasingly, cheaper meat imports from abroad will have a negative effect on domestic employment in many food processing occupations. 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. Nevertheless, job opportunities should be available at all levels of the occupation due to the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
As the Nation’s population grows, the demand for meat, poultry, and seafood should continue to increase. Successful marketing by the poultry industry is likely to increase demand for chicken and ready-to-heat products. Similarly, the development of prepared food products that are lower in fat and more nutritious promises to stimulate the consumption of red meat. The trend toward preparing meat in containers at the processing level also should contribute to demand for animal slaughterers and meatpackers.
Lesser skilled meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers—who work primarily in animal slaughtering and processing plants—should experience average employment growth. With the growing popularity of labor-intensive, ready-to-heat poultry products, demand for poultry workers should remain firm. Fish cutters also will be in demand, as the task of preparing ready-to-heat fish goods gradually shifts from retail stores to processing plants. Also, advances in fish farming, or “aquaculture,” should help meet the growing demand for fish and produce opportunities for fish cutters.
Employment of more highly skilled butchers and meatcutters, who work primarily in retail stores, is expected to grow more slowly than average. Automation and the consolidation of the animal slaughtering and processing industries are enabling employers to transfer employment from higher paid butchers to lower wage slaughterers and meatpackers in meatpacking plants. At present, most red meat arrives at grocery stores partially cut up, but a growing share of meat is being delivered prepackaged, with additional fat removed, to wholesalers and retailers. This trend is resulting in less work and, thus, fewer jobs for retail butchers.
While high-volume production equipment limits the demand for bakers in manufacturing, overall employment of bakers is expected to increase about as fast as average due to growing numbers of large wholesale bakers in stores, specialty shops, and traditional bakeries. In addition to the growing numbers of cookie, muffin, and cinnamon roll bakeries, the numbers of specialty bread and bagel shops have been growing, spurring demand for bread and pastry bakers.
Employment of food batchmakers, food cooking machine operators and tenders, and food and tobacco cooking and roasting machine operators and tenders, is expected to grow more slowly than average. As more of this work is being done at the manufacturing level rather than at the retail level, potential employment gains will be offset by productivity gains from automated cooking and roasting equipment.
Earnings vary by industry, skill, geographic region, and educational level. Median annual earnings of butchers and meatcutters were $25,890 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $19,780 and $34,260. The highest 10 percent earned more than $41,980 annually, while the lowest 10 percent earned less than $15,920. Butchers and meatcutters employed at the retail level typically earn more than those in manufacturing. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of butchers and meatcutters in May 2004 were as follows:
Other general merchandise stores
Specialty food stores
Animal slaughtering and processing
Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers typically earn less than butchers and meatcutters. In May 2004, median annual earnings for these lower skilled workers were $18,900. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,240 and $22,360. The highest 10 percent earned more than $27,430, while the lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,410. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers in May 2004 are shown in the following tabulation:
Grocery and related product wholesalers
Animal slaughtering and processing
Seafood product preparation and packaging
Median annual earnings of bakers were $21,330 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $17,070 and $27,210. The highest 10 percent earned more than $34,410, and the lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,680. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of bakers in May 2004 are given in the following tabulation:
Other general merchandise stores
Bakeries and tortilla manufacturing
Limited-service eating places
Median annual earnings of food batchmakers were $22,090 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $17,010 and $28,790. The highest 10 percent earned more than $35,540, and the lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,370. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of food batchmakers in May 2004 are presented in the following tabulation:
Dairy product manufacturing
Other food manufacturing
Fruit and vegetable preserving and
specialty food manufacturing
Sugar and confectionery product manufacturing
Bakeries and tortilla manufacturing
In May 2004, median annual earnings for slaughterers and meatpackers were $20,860. The middle 50 percent earned between $18,120 and $23,920. The highest 10 percent earned more than $27,910, and the lowest 10 percent earned less than $15,520. Median annual earnings in animal slaughtering and processing, the industry employing the largest number of slaughterers and meatpackers, were $20,900 in May 2004.
Median annual earnings for food cooking machine operators and tenders were $20,850 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,680 and $26,670. The highest 10 percent earned more than $33,780, and the lowest 10 percent earned less than $13,930. Median annual earnings in fruit and vegetable preserving and specialty food manufacturing, the industry employing the largest number of food cooking machine operators and tenders, were $24,370 in May 2004.
In May 2004, median annual earnings for food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders were $23,840. The middle 50 percent earned between $18,600 and $30,590. The highest 10 percent earned more than $37,000, and the lowest 10 percent earned less than $15,000.
Food processing workers generally received typical benefits, including pension plans for union members or those employed by grocery stores. However, poultry workers rarely earned substantial benefits. In 2004, 21 percent of all food processing workers were union members or were covered by a union contract. Many food processing workers are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
Food processing workers must be skilled at both hand and machine work and must have some knowledge of processes and techniques that are involved in handling and preparing food. Other occupations that require similar skills and knowledge include chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers.
Sources of Additional Information
State employment service offices can provide information about job openings for food processing occupations.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition, Food Processing Occupations, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos219.htm (visited July 14, 2006).
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