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Springfield, MO

International Dehydrated Foods Inc. chairman
International Dehydrated Foods Inc. chairman

2017 Manufacturing Outlook: Kurt Hellweg

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Kurt Hellweg is helping International Dehydrated Foods Inc. navigate global waters as manufacturers embrace technology in a new plan for the future.

2017 Projection: The farm-to-table mentality and shift to organic will continue as consumers are willing to pay a premium price for that connection.

SBJ: How is the rise in technology shifting the manufacturing industry?  
Kurt Hellweg: If you look at how manufacturing has been philosophically over the ages, it all started with humans making these things. And then in the industrial age we started the machines making them. What we’re going through now is that instead of humans controlling the machines, now computers are controlling the machines. So, for us to really build manufacturing jobs, there’s going to be less people. There’s going to be more machines, but the skillset that people are going to need is that they are going to have to be able to program those machines. We’re going to have to be able to fix those machines: electricians, welding skills – some of those things are going to be very important. So, what the Springfield area can do, I think, is start looking at that kind of education, at that kind of skillset and making sure we as manufacturers and as residents of Springfield are making sure we have that in our school system. We are raising a generation that can fulfill those manufacturing jobs.

SBJ: What are some key markets for the coming year?
Hellweg: From an export perspective, what happens when economies develop is they’ve got more money to spend on their food. It’s kind of an interesting thing when you think about Americans back in 1960. I think about 17.5 percent of our disposable income was spent on food. Flash forward to today, and about 10 percent of our disposable income is spent on food. I think it’s interesting to think of what’s going to happen as time goes on – you are seeing food costs are probably going to have to increase.

SBJ: What are the opportunities and challenges of exporting?
Hellweg: What we do from an export [perspective] is we look at these developing markets outside of the United States. We know that they are going to spend more money instead of on flavors like bouillons, which we already supply them, but higher protein. That’s where the upmarket is going to be. That’s where we are looking to expand. But, you’ve got import regulations, you’ve got different countries protecting their industries and those are just hurdles we have to navigate.

SBJ: What trends are you seeing going into 2017?
Hellweg: I think some of the trends are going locally. People want organic, non-GMO. I think that folks want to feel they are closer to the garden, to that particular plant or pasture animal. The issue really is – I think you saw that through Chipotle –  they really had issues because they were trying to address some of those trends out there like locally sourcing a lot of our ingredients. Well, the controls that those ingredients have from smaller manufacturers a lot of times aren’t as stringent as some of the larger manufacturers. I think the issues really, truly are how do we get closer as a consumer to our food supply, but still make sure that we’ve got the safety involved in that and procedures in place? At the end of the day, we all have to take responsibility for what we do. We can’t push that back upstream to the suppliers.

SBJ: The Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act is being called the most sweeping reform to food safety law in over 70 years. What is your take on it?
Hellweg: President [Barack] Obama’s administration, what they were looking at was a lot of the foodborne illnesses taking place across America. There hadn’t been anything to address that. The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) said 48 million people were affected by foodborne illnesses in 2010. About 127,000 folks were hospitalized and they thought that it related to about 3,000 deaths. So, what they were really looking at were some ingredients coming in from overseas and thinking about how that was affecting our food system. I think it was just as much to make sure the incoming ingredients have great quality as much as what we were producing locally. It probably doesn’t have as much of an impact on us. I think the thing that is probably going to have the biggest impact is applying these regulations across the whole industry. When you think about going to the farmers market and buying produce that’s there, you’ve really got to think about if they have the same standards in place that large manufacturers do.

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