A food industry makeover?

Articles
December 06, 2010

A food industry makeover?

While the nation wrestles with the political aspects of immigration, it has become obvious to many in the U.S. food industry that immigrant workers are filling necessary agricultural jobs that many citizens don’t want to do themselves. If the government shuts the door on this labor force, it needs to consider who would harvest the nation’s food supply or fill myriad other positions that help feed the nation and the world.

While the nation wrestles with the political aspects of immigration, it has become obvious to many in the U.S. food industry that immigrant workers are filling necessary agricultural jobs that many citizens don’t want to do themselves. If the government shuts the door on this labor force, it needs to consider who would harvest the nation’s food supply or fill myriad other positions that help feed the nation and the world.

Could robotics become an economically feasible alternative – in the fields, in food processing plants, in slaughterhouses and more? Which processes could be automated further? Would we be more accepting of GMO crops, which could be harvested by machine because they grow further off the ground? Much of the U.S. food industry could be in for a partial makeover, depending on answers to the immigration question.

Yet the willingness of immigrants to accept specific jobs in the food sector is already in question. If the hiring experiences of luncheon meat manufacturer Sigma Alimentos SA in Seminole, OK, repeat themselves frequently in other food industry settings, employers may need to look to harvesting and processing technologies and other solutions sooner rather than later – even before immigration policies get settled.

The Mexican-based company received $5 million in tax incentives from Seminole to open a hot dog and ham plant that would employ 200 immediately, and potentially another 400. According to The Wall Street Journal, Sigma invested $63 million to open here, but has had problems filling spots despite a local unemployment rate that exceeds 10%.

The issues are shifts that begin as early as 4 a.m., pay that doesn’t compete with casino or bingo parlor work nearby, and difficult conditions such as working in refrigerated rooms, WSJ reported.

The Lempert Report isn’t taking a position on immigration policy with this column. We are raising a couple of points, however. First, as eager as immigrants are to stay in America and be able to send money home to their families, they wont blindly accept any work in the food industry; like anyone, they’ll weigh alternatives. Second, any discussion of immigration policy ought to include the food industry, because an undisrupted food supply is essential to the well being of the nation and much of the world, and it carries tremendous export value for the United States.