While the scientific debate continues as to whether the earth is in global warming or entering the next ice age, food and beverage manufacturers are mired in the day-to-day fight to reduce energy consumption.

According to a 2007 EPA study called Energy Trends in Selected Manufacturing Sectors, food processing is one of the largest manufacturing energy consumers. The report goes on to say that energy is an important input cost for the food industry, typically ranking third in terms of business costs. Raw materials and labor are the other dominant cost factors.

EPA estimates 40% of the value of processed food is added through energy-intensive manufacturing during process heating and cooling, for example. Equipment such as steam systems, ovens, furnaces and refrigeration units has the greatest energy demand in food manufacturing.

While the sustainability push did not reach full throttle in the packaging area until Wal-Mart issued its ultimatum scorecard in late 2006, Food Engineering research revealed in mid-2007 that 73% of processors surveyed were already reducing packaging waste streams and 70% were working toward reducing energy usage and transportation costs. Ironically, a decade ago, I remember getting a ho-hum reaction from my coworkers when I suggested Food Engineering cover topics such as wastewater treatment.

Today, sustainability-related topics are some of the most requested articles by Food Engineering readers, the best attended sessions at the Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference and crucial information requested by attendees at FE’s ProcessTechnologyXchange strategic event.

The perfect storm of retailer demands, stronger consumer influence and rising energy and commodities costs has pushed food and beverage environmental concerns to the forefront. While some marketing sectors have been accused of greenwashing, savvy processors know the current business climate means sustainability is no passing fad.

While it may have taken Earth Day nearly 40 years to morph into Earth Decade, food and beverage makers are swiftly making changes to meet the needs of the environment.