In an ever-changing industry like food processing, it can be easy to get caught up in day-to-day details and developments. But it's also important to take a step back and look at the big picture.

  • What are the most important challenges facing food processors today, and how can they be met?
  • From a broad and future-looking standpoint, how can you help your business succeed?

For more insight, we spoke to Joe Cordray, Extension Meat Specialist at Iowa State University and a 50-year industry veteran. He shared his 12 “secrets of success” for meat- and food-processing businesses.

Secret #1: Food safety is paramount

There's no doubt that food safety is the biggest concern in food production. This is especially true right now, as consumer demand for ready-to-eat (RTE) foods continues to rise.

“If you have a food safety problem,” Cordray says, “it can result in a significant financial loss, loss of customers, and loss of reputation. In some cases, it can result in companies going out of business.”

Cordray notes that food safety problems come from one of three places:

  • People. Most food safety problems that involve people happen by accident. The way to prevent these problems is through proper training.
  • Environment. Environment-related problems often arise from sanitation issues. Thus, sanitation procedures should be monitored and verified to ensure cleanliness and allergen control.
  • Ingredients. Companies should have a solid strategy for supply-chain control, including Certificates of Analysis (COAs) and Letters of Guarantee (LOGs) from suppliers.

Secret #2: Have a good food defense plan

While preventive controls are crucial for food safety, it's also important to guard against intentional wrongdoing that can result in food contamination. Cordray notes that the term food defense usually elicits thoughts of terrorism, but that the biggest threats of intentional contamination come from disgruntled employees.

Traditional security measures—like cameras and management of facility access—are clearly necessary. But they don't go far enough.

Cordray recommends companies actively involve their workers in the food defense plan. “Employees need to be your eyes and ears as far as looking for intentional problems,” he says. “And employers need to empower their employees to speak up if they see something is not right.”

He advises a process by which workers can provide anonymous tips if they see cause for concern.

Secret #3: Invest in employees

Employees are a company's greatest asset. And Cordray says, “The number one way to invest in employees is to train them.”

Training should start immediately upon hire and continue annually, always with documentation. During training, highlight the importance of each worker's tasks to help them understand their contributions to the overall success of the company.

Beyond training, Cordray stresses the value of employee motivation, noting that money isn't the only motivational tool available. Lunches, parties, and other company events can help build community.

Further, employers should consider “job enrichment through job rotation.” This can minimize ergonomic problems for workers, as well as provide flexibility for employers.

For instance, Cordray recalls two brothers who worked for a small food processor. One brother eviscerated the pigs slaughtered in the morning, and the other eviscerated the cattle slaughtered in the afternoon. When both brothers left the company, no other employees knew how to take over their tasks. But if the processor had rotated jobs among workers, there would have been people ready to fill those roles.

Secret #4: Consistency is the No. 1 way to generate repeat sales

Of course price and quality are important for repeat sales. But consistency is the key. Cordray offers fast food as an example of successful consistency: “When you walk in the door, you have some idea of what to expect [at a fast food restaurant], no matter where you are.”

Cordray notes that inconsistency can lead to loss of customers, even if they're brand loyal. Complaints can usually be resolved, but most customers don't bother complaining — they simply change their buying habits. If a customer is dissatisfied twice, Cordray says, “you've lost them for good.”

Secret #5: Know what your products cost to produce, and keep a close eye on your product line

“There's no question that new product introduction is a lifeblood for many companies,” Cordray says. But products new and old must be regularly evaluated for profitability. Evaluating your entire product line will allow you to identify which products are earning money, and which aren't.

If you find a high-volume product that isn't earning, you might want to adjust its price. If a low-volume product isn't making money, consider dropping it.

“There's no reason to keep making a product just because that's what you've always done,” Cordray advises. He suggests taking the famous advice from the song “The Gambler”: You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.

Secret #6: Develop effective communication in your company

Cordray counts this as one of his most important pieces of advice. “The biggest challenge that each and every one of us faces in our lives—personally and professionally—is communication,” he says. To foster effective communication, create an open environment in which workers are encouraged to talk with supervisors and peers.

Communication training can also be part of the solution, whether through dedicated seminars or as part of an overall training program. Training can be tailored for specific communication purposes, depending on a company's goals. For example, in some of Cordray's training programs, participants are asked to make presentations. This hands-on practice prepares them to present more effectively to superiors and co-workers in the future.

Good communication pays off in not only worker satisfaction and food defense, but also in efficiency. “For many companies,” Cordray says, “the very best suggestions they get on how to improve a process are from the people doing it every day.”

Secret #7: Please the eyes first

Cordray suggests thinking of your product like a restaurant thinks of the dishes it presents to diners. Based on presentation, “you start to decide whether or not you like the food before you ever taste it,” he says. “The same thing relates to food products.”

Often, packaging is the first way potential customers interact with your product, so it should make a good impression.

As an example of what not to do, Cordray remembers a trip to the grocery store, where he saw some smoked sausages that he'd had before and enjoyed. But the packaging, clear bags with an “almost unreadable” light yellow label, didn't have the visual appeal to communicate the quality of the product. Instead, Cordray says, packaging should be “attractive” and “eye-catching,” with appropriate colors and easy readability.

Your product itself should be visually attractive, as well, both inside and out. Cordray offers the example of ground meat, in which particle definition is critical. Make sure you test your product often and make adjustments as necessary.

Secret #8: Have a succession plan

A succession plan is important both for key employees within your company and for eventual transfer of the overall business.

Cordray notes that a succession plan can yield significant tax advantages, and can also ensure continuity for your business. Start thinking about a strategy sooner rather than later, because succession planning can take years to accomplish.

Secret #9: Know your bottlenecks

Consistently monitor your process flow to identify and address bottlenecks, the least efficient points of the process. Cordray notes that as you resolve one bottleneck, another will take its place. In this way, you can tackle one inefficiency after another.

When thinking about bottlenecks, Cordray remembers some advice from his dad: “One of the great satisfactions in life is to do the best you can with what you've got.” Cordray suggests that processors take a look at the resources they have and operate the best they can, addressing inefficiencies along the way.

Secret #10: Invest in your business

“You need to keep updating,” Cordray says. “On an ongoing basis, invest in your business.” He stresses that to avoid future equipment problems and obsolescence, you should have a plant improvement plan (PIP) for both the short and long terms, as well as conduct a semi-annual assessment.

Secret #11: Enjoy what you do

This one is all too easy to forget!

Taking pleasure in your job can be an important element of overall achievement. “If you have passion for what you do, you'll be a whole lot more successful.” On the other hand, if you don't enjoy your job, Cordray suggests considering a change.

Secret #12: Don't be afraid to take a chance

Cordray's mom once told him that “the biggest hindrance to success is a fear of failure.” He has tried to live by those words ever since. And he thinks the food industry has a lot to benefit from this advice.

“Don't be afraid to fail,” he says. “If you feel like you have a good idea and a good plan, give it a try. If it doesn't work out, try something else.”

Cordray has seen these tips in action for more than five decades, and he has watched them work. For more of Cordray's expert advice, check out his articles on validation, product line extensions, and Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) resources.