Scott Eilert is research and development director for Excel Pork, where he has worked for more than five years.

Q How is the packing industry changing?

A In general, changes in the packing industry are due to packers moving away from being commodity pork suppliers to providing solutions to customers. This is evident in the increased offering of branded programs, and value-added items for the domestic and international markets.

The key driver is that fierce competition makes it difficult to succeed in a true commodity world. Many in the packing industry realize that we cannot provide acceptable returns to our companies without providing real, value-added solutions to our customers. This can occur in the form of processes or products.

Q What are the biggest challenges that packers face today and in the future?

A Today, our biggest challenges are that we're trying to transition our businesses from being commodity driven to ones providing added-value and services to our customers. We are transitioning into a global economy that will ultimately lead to enhanced demand for our products. However, the demand is not as strong as it will likely be in the next decade. We also are transitioning from a "command-and-control" inspection program to one based upon science and true risk management.

Two challenges that overshadow everything we do, now and in the future are:

1) The continuing challenge of providing a wholesome and safe product to consumers.

2) Managing our growing businesses with a shrinking labor pool.

The labor issue affects us on many fronts, not just that we are struggling to find people for our plants. We also have to continue to develop procedures and systems that make the best use of the labor force that we have.

Q How are things like consumer demands and food safety affecting the way packers do business?

A Consumer demands are driving us to develop more value-added and convenience items. We are answering that with products and services that are friendly to consumers needs at the retail and at foodservice levels.

As for things like the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program, we conduct our business in a manner that is even more structured than in the past. We know the origin of our products and ingredients, and are able to control our processes better than ever.

Q How would you assess the producer/packer relationship today?

A The producer/packer relationship today is good but not great. We are seeing more evidence that producers are viewing themselves as food producers, and not just as suppliers of live animals for slaughter or breeding purposes. Producers are making the commitment to provide safer products that meet domestic and international consumers' demands.

Packers are continuing to provide more information to producers to help them make decisions as "food producers". We are making progress in this area, but there is room to improve.

Q Producers have expressed interest in moving further along the pork chain. How can they accomplish this?

A As previously stated, it is about seeing oneself as a food producer and aligning with specific packers and processors to provide value-added food solutions. It is critical that the producer realizes that if he or she wants to add and reap more value, it will require a movement away from the commodity mentality, just as the packing industry continues to move from this mentality.

Q What can producers expect from packers in the future?

A At Excel, we believe the future will be highlighted by greater information sharing so that producers can play a constructive role in the delivery of food solutions. We have already started this process by providing more than just standard information about weight and cutability of carcasses. There will be more information shared as to the quality (color, water-holding capacity, firmness, fat firmness) of the hogs.

Q Packing plant capacity is a concern. What challenges and/or solutions do you see in the future?

A Labor is one of the big challenges. In addition, it's difficult to justify increased packing capacity when the markets for our products are as soft as they have been. Right now, we feel there is a fairly good balance between demand and slaughter capacity. As demand for our products grows internationally and domestically, so should our capacity to slaughter and process. If we learned anything from 1998, it is that we cannot "push" demand for products by simply increasing production.