Food is big business in the LV
We love our food. Before every snowstorm, we flock to local supermarkets to stock up with milk, eggs and bread. A trip to the grocery is a weekly ritual. Holidays are an excuse for a feast, picnic or barbecue. But amazingly, we only spend about 6.5 percent of our household budget on food. This is far less than any other country in the world. Europeans spend between two and three times as much as we do. Russian families spend nearly a third of their household budget to put food on the table. This was one of the first points made by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) as it recently kicked off its national tour with a tour of Hanover Township’s Freshpet Kitchens, followed by a roundtable discussion and of course, lunch.
“The grocery manufacturing sector is our nation’s single largest source of manufacturing jobs, employing 2.1 million Americans in 30,000 communities across the country,” said Pamela G. Bailey, CEO of GMA. “In Pennsylvania alone, grocery manufacturing companies like Freshpet, Furmano’s Foods, and Bimbo Bakeries provide over 65,000 local workers with jobs.”
Frespet Kitchens is a 100,000-square-foot facility that has already expanded twice and is rated one of the fastest growing providers of manufacturing jobs in the Lehigh Valley. Its product, as you might have guessed is dog and cat food. But not just any dog or cat food. It is freshly prepared at a high-tech facility whose hygienic standards are much closer to hospital’s operating room than any kitchen.
In addition to a white frock, everyone had to wear hairnets and shoes had to be covered with rubber. Pockets were emptied of spare change and even most pens, which could accidentally be dropped into a vat, were prohibited. Everyone on the tour had to insert his hands and arms in cylindrical tubes for a thorough washing. Soap suds were at various points on the floors. Some employees even wore surgical masks.
Inside, sophisticated machines did most of the work as employees in lab coats and hairnets monitored computer displays. To prevent harmful bacteria after the food is cooked, the packaging is done in a vacuum. Samples of every batch are kept for 24 weeks, the shelf life of the product. Drew Styring runs a battery of tests before anything leaves He makes sure that what you see on your label is what is in the package. He also operates a microlab that tests for yeast, mold and pathogens. Tests are also done on an hourly basis as products like Deli Fresh® Grain Free Chicken with Cranberries and Spinach go through the cooker.
Every employee, from top to bottom, is trained in both quality control and safety.
Congressman Charlie Dent, who went on this tour, was amazed. “I don’t think I ever saw so much hygiene,” he said. His remarks were echoed by other participants of the roundtable discussion. Those included Freshpet CEO Billy Cyr, Furmano’s Foods CEO Chad Geise, Bimbo Bakeries USA VP of HR Jonathan Berger, Lehigh Valley Economic Corporation President and CEO Don Cunningham, Hanover Township Manager John J. Finnigan, Food Source President Peter Schaffer and PATH (Pennsylvania Advanced Training and Hiring) Executive Director Michael Salute.
Bailey described grocery manufacturers as a job creation engine of the American economy, stating that the industry includes 2.1 million jobs, adding $1.1 trillion to the nation’s GDP. And as she pointed out, the food manufacturers rely primarily on American products through a sophisticated supply chain.
Freshpet’s Billy Cyr lamented that government roadblocks to business expansion can make them less competitive. The problem is that technology can become obsolete in the 18 months it takes to get the permitting for construction that takes a year.
“It’s still giving us the most inexpensive, bountiful food supply the world has ever known,” added Dent.
But there are problems. Dent said the 35 percent American corporate tax rate one of the highest in the world, should be dropped to around 20 percent. He said Congress in its tax reform will be trying to bring that rate down while “clearing out some of the regulatory underbrush” that makes it difficult for Billy Cyr’s Freshpets to expand.
“It takes forever and a day to build new capacity,” said Dent, noting the problem exists with bridge repairs, too. Though Pennsylvania’s bridges are among the worst in the nation, any repairs require lengthy 10-step environmental reviews.
“Time is money,” he said.
Finally, Dent stressed a need for high-tech jobs. “If we don’t have people with the skill sets here, the jobs might go to where the skill sets are,and that might not be America,” he warned.
Dent said tax reform and infrastructure are closely related. We have to pay for infrastructure somehow,” said Dent, adding, there’s “no better way to do it than tax reform.”