Attendees at last week’s Food Processing Expo in Sacramento got to examine samples of canned and packaged foods ranging from olives to tomato paste made by the manufacturers at the event. Photo by David Castellon

published on March 8, 2018 - 1:52 PM
Written by David Castellon

SACRAMENTO – If there was one overriding theme for this year’s annual Food Processing Expo last week, it was the lack of an overriding theme.

No new piece of technology had crowds of people flocking to one or two of the 272 exhibitor booths here, nor were most of the estimated 2,500 attendees at the Sacramento Convention Center buzzing about a particular industry issue.

But to a smaller degree, there were important issues the attendees were looking to address with the latest technology and services on display here during the event that ran Feb. 21 and 22.

Among them were manufacturers looking at technology to reduce their energy usage, said Rob Neenan, president and CEO of the California League of Food Producers, which put on the Expo.

“The food-processing sector in California is the second-largest user of natural gas and the third largest user of electricity [in the state]. It just takes a lot of gas and power to cook food and clean facilities, and energy costs in California are among the highest in the country to start with, and they’re going up faster than the rest of the country, and it’s going to make firms less competitive,” as their energy costs go up and cut into their bottom lines, he explained, adding that energy generally comprises 5 to 15 percent of food manufacturers’ overall costs.

So many of the attendees spent their time talking to vendors offering energy-related services, which included auditing energy use at businesses and offering machinery to help, including high-tech boilers, Neenan said.

For Brian T. Griggs, president of Aqua Natural solutions, many of people coming to his booth were driven there by — of all things — social media.

His company in Corcoran manufactures bacteria that can break down waste, whether in community wastewater treatment plants or in sludge ponds where waste products are stored that can include fat and blood from meat-processing plants and byproducts from making and canning tomato sauce.

“In addition to dealing with government [regulations], they are concerned with public awareness,” particularly how some people have posted videos of these sludge pits online, giving the impression that they’re harmful to nearby communities.

Sludge pits generate odors, and during the recent drought some smelled worse than normal because the ponds were low on water. But many people wrongly associate bad odors with health risks, Griggs said.

He noted the case of Huy Fong Foods, Inc., in Irwindale, which temporarily had to close in 2013 after neighbors complained of strong odors from its Sriracha hot sauce production.

Today, food manufacturers — including large ones — are looking to avoid such conflicts and being targeted on social media, so many had representatives here looking at “green-friendly” products to break down waste in their sludge pits and reduce odors, said Griggs, whose bacteria can do that.

For Dale Butz, the return of a dry winter following last year’s break from five years of severe drought drew people to his booth.

Butz was there to hawk urethane foam and foam sealants used to insulate roofs and walls of industrial buildings.

“These people came looking for solutions, and that’s what we do,” he said, noting that many of the potential customers for Foam Coat LLC in Clovis wanted “insulation for the drought.”

“We did a lot of roofs last year,” as higher-than-normal rainfall in the Valley revealed leaks and other problems, but this year the big concern seemed to be ensuring businesses are insulated against hotter, dryer weather in case this year’s abnormally dry winter is the start of another ongoing drought cycle, Buttz said.

Ray Tooth, said, for him, this year’s expo was about businesses loosening their purse strings and looking to build and renovate.

Tooth is the business development director and a precast concrete salesman for Mid-State Precast, LP, in Corcoran, which manufactures pre-formed concrete sections of buildings and other structures.

“The economy has been better for us, and increasing [business] for us, particularly this past year,” said Tooth, adding that he believes the rise in construction traces back to President Donald Trump and his aggressive pro-business agenda.

“I think he’s proven to do what he said he’s going to do, and that’s improve the economy.”

If there was one issue concerning most of the attendees here — ranging from CEOs to plant foremen — it was the difficulties they have filling technical jobs, Neenan said.

“A lot of these food-processing plants are putting in new technologies — automated sorters, computer technology — and they really need qualified mechanics, welders, electricians, trained technical people” to fix and operate them, he explained.

“Across the nation, manufacturers, in general, and food processors in particular, are really struggling to fill these technical positions. There aren’t enough students coming out of community colleges and high schools with these technical skills, and many don’t want to go into careers in manufacturing,” he said, adding that the situation for food manufacturing is different from farming and ranching, “where a lot of the labor shortages relate to field workers and probably lesser-skilled positions.”

As such, Neenan said his industry needs to “reorient” the public’s perception of manufacturing to make people aware there are jobs available — and they’re good jobs.

“And maybe if somebody doesn’t want to go through a four-year college track, they consider going into food processing and manufacturing in general as a place to work.”

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