Millers confront opportunities for bold action

by Josh Sosland
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Josh Sosland
Topics on the agenda of the North American Millers’ Association annual meeting this year were familiar. Food safety, product promotion, dwindling wheat plantings and Kansas State University have been important issues for years if not decades. At this year’s gathering in Dana Point, Calif., the subjects took on truly oversized importance. How milling responds will help shape the industry’s future in critical ways.

In the case of food safety, the millers were grappling once again with the ripple effects of product recalls over the past two years related to the detection of E. coli and allergens in flour or flour-based products. The millers are addressing these threats in several ways. For pathogens, NAMA is focused on consumer education about the safe handling of raw flour, dough and batter, and member companies are in pursuit of technological breakthroughs that ideally would eliminate the problem altogether. For allergens, particular attention is being devoted to flaws in the Food Safety Modernization Act that fail to hold transportation carriers responsible for communicating with millers what products were hauled on prior loads.

Added to the food safety agenda recently are issues related to the chemical glyphosate. While used mostly as a herbicide in connection with Roundup Ready crops, glyphosate also is used as a pre-harvest desiccant by a small percentage of wheat growers. Most governmental health agencies have concluded it does not pose a risk to humans, but California has proposed requiring Proposition 65 warning labels for glyphosate. The millers rightly are anxious to avoid the mandatory appearances of such warnings on flour-based foods.

Over NAMA’s and the Millers National Federation’s history, product promotion has ebbed and flowed as a topic of attention. For more than a decade, the Grain Foods Foundation has been milling’s and baking’s principal vehicle for defending the integrity and healthfulness of flour-based foods in the diet. After several years of flat demand, though, the industry is exploring a dramatic expansion in its commitment to product promotion — the initiation of a checkoff program. A presentation at the NAMA annual meeting was cast as a preliminary backgrounder. Given the complexities of grain-based foods relative to other industries with checkoff programs, millers and bakers would be wise to tread cautiously in exploration of what would be a tremendous commitment. Still, the unending and unparalleled attacks directed to flour-based foods, disappointing consumption trends and the extraordinary potential voice that may be gained with the help of a checkoff program mandate the most serious possible consideration of this gutsy proposal.

While planted wheat area has been trending downward for decades, declines have accelerated in recent years. Frustrating to the millers were remarks by a prominent wheat breeder describing impediments to the introduction of improved wheat varieties. Peggy Lemaux, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, described how research at her university and others have generated breakthroughs like sprout resistance. She lamented that the path to commercialization has been impeded by government regulations and the inability of academic institutions and commercial seed companies to work together.

Finally, the relationship between NAMA and the Department of Grain Science and Industry at Kansas State University has experienced more than a few ups and downs over the past 25 years but perhaps never has been stronger. Enrollment figures described by Gordon Smith, Ph.D., the department head, were impressive. More tantalizing was the vision for future collaboration at an increased level between K.S.U. and the millers described by Dr. Smith. In addition to the installation of a specialty mill in the Hal Ross mill, he raised the possibility of adding a researcher to find ways to optimize further the milling process.

Whether a wheat researcher joins K.S.U., breeding research turns more readily into commercial varieties or grain-based foods adopts a checkoff program remains to be seen. But the monumental, game-changing scope of ideas under consideration represents an extraordinary opportunity for the industry and affirms that with bold action, a bright future is within reach for milling.
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