Every year, new technological innovations enter the market. New machines make processing faster and more efficient. New software improvements make traceability faster and track data. Since employees are harder than ever to find, it makes sense that technology helps to fill the void. In some cases, food safety is actually improved by letting automation portion, cook, chill and package a product without any human hands potentially adding pathogens to the mix.

While technology can do many great things in the meat and poultry industry, we’re not at the stage where robots will run things just yet. There always is a need for people, particularly among smaller companies. In a world that is increasingly high tech, there is considerable value in pleasant human interaction, even in business. When we can have full conversations via e-mail or text, there is comfort in calling a company and getting to speak with the owner or the key contact immediately.

I’ve had the fortune of seeing some of the most high-tech equipment, and the speed and accuracy is incredible to watch. That said, some of my most memorable experiences while writing about the meat industry came from people, not the products or the processes. I’ve met with meat market owners who welcomed every customer into the shop like a valued friend. I’ve talked with company presidents who put their phone number on their packaged meats so that customers could reach them. They became the face of the business, and consumers will put more trust in a person than they will a faceless corporation.

My cover story for the February issue of Independent Processor is on Pro Portion Foods, which suffered a catastrophic fire to their plant in Los Angeles as their new facility in Texas was just coming online. The managing partners in the business called every customer and spoke with their equipment vendors. They were able to have new machinery delivered to Texas within days, and they didn’t lose a single customer in the immediate aftermath. Would any of that have been accomplished without personal relationships? They pulled together employees, old and new, and turned them into a strong team. It would not have happened unless they took the effort to work with their employees and treat them as family, instead of hired help.

In the coming year, you’ll undoubtedly make plans for capital expenditures, whether it’s improvements to your plant or store or a new production or packaging machine. Those are all great improvements. Just don’t forget that people skills are as important as processing skills.

Sam Gazdziak