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Food Industry Focuses on Pending Trends

Challenges center on sustainability, workforce gaps and digitalization.

Busy Show Floor Pelv 2021

Productivity is the number one concern of food processors, followed by automation and sustainability, according to a survey of executives invited to the Top to Top Summit, a meeting of end users and suppliers of packaging and processing technologies, held in March 2023 to discuss industry challenges.

The resulting report, Sustainability and Technology – the Future of Packaging and Processing, published in May 2023 by PMMI Business Intelligence, a division of PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, also identifies three evolving trends: sustainability, workforce and technology, and digitalization.


The report foresees growing attention in two areas associated with sustainability: corporate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies and regulatory requirements related to extended producer responsibility (EPR).

Although EPR started in Germany about 40 years ago and is well-established in many countries, it’s in its infancy in the U.S. where only four states have enacted EPR regulations. However, many states are considering legislation, and bills have been introduced in Congress. Despite this activity, not many food processors are considering how EPR legislation might affect their business. The few that are examining the impact of EPR rules are concerned about the effects on efficiency/throughput and the possible increase in costs with reuse/refill targets. According to the report, “Some participants noted post-consumer recycled (PCR) content and recyclable materials will become more important in the future, and pointed to potentially positive outcomes from EPR regulations, such as working more collaboratively with industry partners and customers.”

Many respondents hope national legislation will be enacted, thereby eliminating the need to comply with a patchwork of differing requirements. In addition to harmonization and standardization, successful implementation of EPR schemes will require consumer education and industry collaboration. More than half of those present (51%) at the PMMI summit chose early collaboration about new materials as the one thing they can do to prepare for EPR, followed by understanding the laws, impact of non-compliance, technology and material impact assessments, reporting, and internal focus/alignment.

ESG initiatives are a key focus for some food processors, but it’s not uncommon to find firms that have not begun to formulate a strategy. However, those with ESG programs have reaped benefits, such as diverting tons of plastic waste from landfills, saving energy, improving productivity, and increasing profits. Many tactics are used to achieve ESG goals. The most popular with survey respondents was implementing new equipment to enable a change to a more sustainable packaging format (41%), followed by implementing renewable energy (37%), minimizing truck transport (34%), reducing corrugate waste (20%), and increasing sustainable wheat (19%).

Workforce and Technology

Workforce challenges continue, but technology is playing a growing role in successful recruitment, training, and retention. In fact, 81% of the audience described their retention efforts as successful or very successful. The report notes that successful initiatives range from gain sharing and regular career discussions to additional benefits, such as health insurance. Competitive wages were also mentioned.

Other ideas cited to foster engagement and retention include:

  • Align management practices and culture with employee needs
  • Offer incentives for improved performance
  • Implement a four-day work week
  • Enable faster career advancement
  • Use technology to gather real-time feedback to enable proactive identification of errors and recognition for improved performance

From a technology standpoint, data transparency, increasing operators’ span of control, and implementing remote and hybrid work schedules for packaging engineer positions have generated positive impact. To address shortages of skilled applicants, some companies have established apprenticeship programs and partnered with local educational institutions to leverage government funding and upskill personnel. A skilled workforce also depends on in-house professional development opportunities, teamwork, and effective training programs from OEMs. “The need to engage with younger people and their concerns, including the environment, digital issues, and work-life balance,” was emphasized by meeting attendees.


The most popular digitalization initiative is predictive maintenance. Implemented by 71% of the survey respondents, it includes cloud-based vibration monitoring, data analytics, and online tracking. Benefits include less unplanned downtime; improved productivity; lower maintenance, repair, and operation inventory; increased run times; better overall equipment effectiveness; and enhanced customer service.

Although less popular than predictive maintenance, other digitalization technologies are starting to be embraced, including cobots at 37%, big data (on-site) at 35%, big data (cloud-based) at 34%, augmented reality/virtual reality at 23%, and digital twin/simulation at 13%.


Going forward, labor shortages, both skilled and unskilled, will remain the biggest challenge for food processors. Other long-term challenges include workforce skills and knowledge gaps and rising costs for operations and transportation.

Workforce development, sustainability, and digitalization technologies will be on display at PACK EXPO Las Vegas (Sept. 11–13, 2023; Las Vegas Convention Center). In keeping pace with industry growth, this year’s show will be the most comprehensive packaging and processing show in North America in 2023. On track to be the largest and broadest edition of this trade show since its inception, PACK EXPO Las Vegas will showcase solutions from over 2,000 suppliers. From engaging with colleagues and hearing from industry experts to witnessing materials, technologies, and machinery in action, attending PACK EXPO Las Vegas is the most effective way to explore packaging and processing solutions for every kind of product, entire production lines, and even the supply chain.


Jorge Izquierdo is VP of Market Development at PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. For more information, visit

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