"I would not have thought going into it that it was the largest. That was a bit of a surprise for me," Hopkins said.
Nationally, 12 percent of all manufacturing jobs fall into food production. In Philadelphia, it's nearly 21 percent.
In the wider region, excluding Philadelphia, one in 10 jobs is in food production, including, for example, people bringing home the bacon from Hatfield Quality Meats in Montgomery County or testing the chowder at Campbell Soup Co. in Camden.
"We've got the infrastructure," said Hopkins, a senior director of consulting at the Philadelphia office of IHS Inc., a national consulting firm.
Imports of many perishable ingredients come into the area's ports. There are many refrigerated warehouses nearby able to receive the products, he said.
Two major railroads service the area and trucks can readily move along I-95 to deliver food to one of the most densely populated areas in the United States, Hopkins added.
"There are something like 48 million people within 200 miles," he said. "That's a lot of people to feed."
Even though the food industry is a major employer, it is not the sector that generates the most revenue.
In Philadelphia, for example, 44 percent of all manufacturing revenue, or $6.9 billion, comes from the petroleum businesses, including Philadelphia Energy Solutions L.L.C., which operates the former Sunoco refinery in South Philadelphia. By contrast, the food sector produces 12.8 percent of all revenues, or about $2 billion.
In the region, the chemical business - which includes pharmaceuticals - generates $17.2 billion in annual revenues. That sector, which is the largest, produces 21.7 percent of the region's manufacturing revenues.
Food is third in the region, producing $6.9 billion in annual revenues, or 8.7 percent.
While the best-known names are Tastykake or Campbell's Soup, the majority of food businesses in the city and in the region are small, employing one to four people, according to the report.
"The greatest expansion is going to be in very small companies that are setting up shops close to their markets," said Stephen Jurash, who heads the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia and helped work on the study.
Typical is Dorinda Hampton's company, Really Fresh Vegan, which produces spicy tomato organic popcorn and other organic foods in West Philadelphia.
She said she now employs four people, including herself: "My dream is to have 25 or 30 people on staff."