Grappling with many challenges

by Josh Sosland
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Josh Sosland
Challenging times are nothing new for the flour milling industry, but the issues facing millers this year seem especially nettlesome. Leaders of the industry, influenced by the menacing array, emphasized the need for the industry uniting around potential solutions during the annual meeting of the North American Millers’ Association Sept. 8-10 at the Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, Va.

The newest battlefront is one already absorbing considerable resources — confronting ripple effects from unprecedented flour recalls undertaken by two major milling companies during the past spring and summer. These worrying episodes occurred just as the industry was faced with coming to grips with compliance in the new and highly complicated Food Safety Modernization Act. All of this proved a combination accentuating the degree to which the industry faces a different and difficult food safety landscape. That is so even though this matter has been a central concern of millers from time immemorial.

In fact, months before the recalls occurred, millers had identified food safety as the first of three pillars for the new NAMA strategic plan. Another pillar, supply chain, also proved prescient, since residual peanut meal in a railcar carrying wheat to a flour mill is believed to have been what triggered one of the two recalls.

Two task forces have been established by NAMA to address the recall issues — one for pathogens and one for allergens. The recalls seriously rattled not only the companies directly affected but the entire industry. That the stakes facing millers are high was driven home in comments during the annual meeting by Stephen Ostroff, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine for the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Ostroff told of a new high level regulatory team — Strategic Coordinated Outbreak Response Evaluation (SCORE) — meeting regularly in response to recalls that are unusual or are not adequately progressing toward resolution. He said the two flour recalls were brought to the SCORE team and that the F.D.A. has faced pressure from the Office of the Inspector General to respond more forcefully to foodborne illness.

Finding actions around which millers will unite is a tough task, but failure would make the industry vulnerable to potentially onerous regulations and could blemish reputations as makers of safe and wholesome products. Every company must examine its milling assets and operating procedures in the light cast by these developments.

NAMA leadership is to be praised for the forthright manner in which the group is addressing the challenges associated with the recalls. In his valedictory remarks as chairman, Dan Dye described food safety as more than a priority. “It must be a value, a way of life every day.” Similarly, Mark Kolkhorst, the group’s new chairman, acknowledged that although food safety has always and continues to be a priority for milling, the industry was committed to “raising the bar” to meet the heightened expectations of their customers and consumers.

With these issues at the forefront, it may not be surprising that chronic challenges such as per capita flour consumption generated less discussion than may otherwise have been the case during course of the NAMA annual meeting. While 133 pounds does not represent a dramatic variance from recent averages (135 pounds has been the norm over the past several years), 133 is the lowest figure since 1989, and doing everything possible to ensure the slide does not extend further should be a top priority for milling. NAMA has addressed the issue through support of the Grain Foods Foundation.

Concurrent with weak demand has been capacity utilization numbers that are among the lowest in decades. While mill operating rates recently have been trending downward for a while, it is increasingly evident that excess capacity is weighing on more businesses. In addition to stepping up efforts to build demand in an era when grain-based foods are under fire, realism in assessing present circumstances for milling is essential as the best start toward better times.
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