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
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
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.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
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
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
Food processing workers held 725,000 jobs in 2004. Employment
among the various types of food processing occupations was distributed
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational
Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition