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Home > Feature Articles > Food Processing for Sustainable, Local, Organic and Effective Food Distribution

Food Manufacturing Industry Overview

Wellness Strategies for Food Manufacturing Workplaces

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carrot agricultural food organic soil conservation The U.S. food-manufacturing stage is dominated by large-scale, capital-intensive, highly diversified corporations. There are more than 17,000 food manufacturing facilities in the United States. The U.S. food-processing industry accounts for approximately 26% of the food-processing output of the world.

Industry trends include:

  • Solid Waste Reduction and generation as they use less or reusable packaging, use biodebradable packing products and recyclable materials such as aluminum, glass and bio-based materials.
  • Mechanical vs. Chemical Processing can reap cost savings and benefits.
  • Pretreatment for Water Conservation and Wastewater Reduction all target source reduction practices. Pretreatment minimize the loss of raw materials to waste streams and water used in conveying materials, cleanup and other noningredient uses are being reduced. Techniques will continue to be developed to lessen the environmental impact of processing discharge wastewaters.

Natural Resource Management for Food Manufacturing

Key resources used by the food-processing industry include the following:


Water is used as an ingredient, an initial and intermediate cleaning source, an efficient transportation conveyor of raw materials, and the principal agent used in sanitizing plant machinery and areas. Pollution prevention and source reduction are more sustainable.

Raw Materials

Raw materials vary from land-based agricultural materials to ocean to air to minerals mined from mountains and deserts. With our escalating population, quantities of raw materials are being exploited at faster rates than the earth can replenish them. Conservation and prioritizing use of precious natural resources are part of thinking sustainably.


Compared to some other heavy industrial sectors, food processing is not considered energy-intensive. Electrical power and natural gas, however both rely on fossil fuels that are both finite and cause pollutants that cause global climate change. Less processing is better and will help stabilize weather patterns and agricultural ecosystems that produce essential raw materials.

Key Environmental Issues for U.S. Food Manufacturing


According to the Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance in North Carolina, primary issues of concern are biochemical oxygen demand (BOX); total suspended solids (TSS); excessive nutrient loading (nitrogen and phosphorus compounds and pathogenic organisms); residual chlorine and pesticide levels.

Solid Waste

Primary issues include both organic and packaging waste.

Organic waste includes rinds, seeds, skin, bones and other raw materials that result from processing operations.

Inorganic wate includes excessive packaging materials such as plastic, glass, metal and paper.

Sustainable practices include finding resale markets for materials, and switching to more biodegradable and recyclable products. Green chemistry is a key sustainable strategy to reduce the toxic and polluting ingredients used in processing, packaging.

Reduction of excessive packaging and use of recycled content such as aluminum, glass and high density polyethylene (HDPE) are being used in appropriate applications.

Getting Started with Green and Sustainable Improvements

Historically, U.S. investments are driven by cost-effectiveness, regulatory mandates, consumer demand, and public interest. This trend is expected to continue. Likely technologies to be adopted in food manufacturing include advanced wastewater treatment practices, improved packaging, and water use reduction.

Strengthening the Clean Water Act (CWA) and concerns over the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act’s (RCRA’s) solid waste disposal issues will continue to drive the industry closer to "sustainable development."

Companies often benefit in a variety of ways when they implement green and sustainable business practices:

  • Reduced energy costs
  • Reduced operational costs
  • Reduced production costs
  • Reduced raw materials costs
  • Reduced transportation costs
  • Reduced treatment and disposal costs
  • Reduced and easier compliance permits
  • Reduced monitoring and enforcement costs

The first ingredient in green is "thinking." Think of our natural resources as a LIMITED SYSTEM. Everything has to be used again and again -- by somebody or something. In nature one animal's nut hulls are another insect's food. One tree's fall leaves are another plant's fertilizer. Our waste can be just as productive when we consciously maximize our resources. Our wasted heat can become energy. Someone else's waste paper can become our packaging. Our sewer water can become agriculture's irrigation.

When we think in these ways, we're less likely to abuse resources -- in quantity or quality.

Water Conservation and Quality for Food Manufacturing

Traditionally, the food-processing industry has been a large water user. Water is used for several purposes: a principal ingredient, an initial and intermediate cleaning source, an efficient transportation conveyor of raw materials, and the principal agent used in sanitizing plant areas and machinery. The primary steps in processing fruits and vegetables include (1) general cleaning and dirt removal, (2) removal of leaves, skin, and seeds, (3) blanching, (4) washing and cooling, (5) packaging, and (6) cleanup.

The primary steps in processing livestock include (1) rendering and bleeding, (2) scalding and/or skin removal, (3) internal organ evisceration, (4) washing, chilling, and cooling, (5) packaging, and (6) cleanup.

The primary steps in processing beverages are (1) raw material handling and processing, (2) mixing, fermentation, and/or cooking, (3) cooling, (4) bottling and packaging, and (5) cleanup.

Processed milk products, which includes cheese, butter, ice cream, and yogurt, originate from fluid milk. The primary steps in processing are (1) clarification or filtration, (2) blending and mixing, (3) pasteurization and homogenization, (4) process manufacturing, (5) packaging, and (6) cleanup.

Although water use will always be a part of the food-processing industry, its reuse and subsequent generation of wastewater have become the principal targets for pollution prevention practices. Water used in conveying materials, plant cleanup, or other noningredient uses are the main areas of potential reduction being considered by the entire food-processing industry.

"Wastewater" as the primary area of pollution concern. Food-processing wastewater can be characterized as nontoxic, because it contains few hazardous and persistent compounds such as those regulated under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) listing. With the exception of some toxic cleaning products, wastewater from food-processing facilities is organic and can be treated by conventional biological technologies. Part of the problem with the food-processing industry’s use and discharge of large amounts of water is that it is located in rural areas in which the water treatment systems (i.e., potable and wastewater systems) are designed to serve small populations. As a result, one medium-sized plant can have a major effect on local water supply and surface water quality. Large food-processing plants will typically use more than 1,000,000 gallons of potable water per day.

In today’s climate, due to increased enforcement of discharge regulations and escalating POTW surcharges, many food-processing facilities are taking steps to either reduce, recycle (or renovate), and/or treat their wastewaters before they discharge them.

Energy Savings for Food Manufacturing

Energy conservation and energy use efficiency will reduce costs and the risk of power outages.
  • Lighting efficiences from the use of LEDs in 24/7 applications are highly cost effective.
  • Daylighting can reduce electricity usage for high intensity lighting and by reducing these lights with using well-engineered windows for light, not only are the cost of the light bulbs, the maintenance of them, the electricity, but also the ambient heat is reduced and the heating and air conditioning load can also be reduced.
  • With numerous rebates available from local, state and federal government programs to help pay for lighting retrofits, lighting can be one of your best green and cost-saving retrofits.
  • Solar and wind power cogeneration can also be a hedge against rising electricity costs. Again, rebate and incentive programs are available in most sectors and regions to help offset the cost of these retrofits.
  • Heat pumps and heat recovery can reclaim heat from your hot water and hot waste processes and return this energy to your operations as heat or energy.

Reduced Risk for Food Manufacturing

Less waste means less liability for environmental problems at both on-site and off-site treatment, storage and disposal facilities. Reducing waste also means less potential risk to human health and safety and reduced worker exposure to toxic chemicals.

Green and sustainable practices make it is easier to achieve and maintain compliance once sustainable management measures have been implemented such as Pollution Prevention (P2).

Another contaminant of food-processing wastewaters, particularly from meat-, poultry-, and seafood-processing facilities, is pathogenic organisms.

Wastewaters with high pathogenic levels must be disinfected prior to discharge. Typically, chlorine is used to disinfect these wastewaters. Ozone, ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and other nontraditional disinfection processes are gaining acceptance due to stricter regulations on the amount of residual chlorine levels in discharged wastewaters.

The pH of a wastewater is of paramount importance to a receiving stream and POTW. Biological microorganisms, used in wastewater treatment, are sensitive to extreme fluctuations in pH. Companies that are found to be the responsible polluter are fined and/or ordered to shut down operations until their pH level meets acceptable values.

Summary and Resources

REFERENCE: North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance (DPPEA)
(800) 763-0136
Clean Technologies in U.S. Industries: Focus on Food Processing

For local P2 information, call 1-800-GOV-1-STOP

CIWMB Waste Prevention Information Exchange, (916) 341-6363. The Info Exchange has sample outreach materials from other organizations and offers technical assistance.

CIWMB Buy Recycled Program, (916) 341-6481.

For the name of your local recycling coordinator call the Board's Office of Local Assistance at (915) 341-6481.

National Centers that Support Food Manufacturing Sustainability

Center for Byproducts Utilization
Milwaukee, WI

Department of Food Science and Technology
Corvallis, OR

Food Industry Research at U.S. Department of Energy
Washington, DC

National Solid Waste Management Association
Trenton, NJ

NCSU Food Science Program
Raleigh, NC

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Richland, WA

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, DC

U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Washington, DC
Process Designers and Consultants
Fluor Daniel, Irvine, CA,

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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