“We would like a mandate that requires everybody to eat a tortilla every day,” joked Richard Irvin, complex manager for Mexican Original, a division of Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, AR, when fielding a question regarding a government mandate that a certain amount of corn be used for ethanol. While this quip showed the light-heartedness of an Ask the Experts forum held during a general session Tuesday, Sept. 11, at the Tortilla Industry Association (TIA)'s 23rd Annual Convention and Expo at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, NV, it did not necessarily epitomize the substance of conversation during this hour-long session.

Jim Kabbani, CEO of TIA, noted that TIA was an early participant of the Food Before Fuel campaign designed to contest the ethanol mandates. Mr. Kabbani served as moderator during the panel discussion, which also included Michael Herrera, sales and technical support, Casa Herrera, Pomona, CA; Alan Davis, sales director, snack industry, Azteca Milling, Irving, TX; and Wayne Beach, director of sales and marketing, Tyson Foods.

When asked about energy costs, Mr. Irvin pointed out that commodities and labor have a much greater impact on finished costs for tortilla products. “But we’re in a penny business, so you want to watch every cent,” he added.

To this end, Mr. Beach suggested tortilla manufacturers work with their suppliers to ensure the equipment is fully optimized.

Mr. Herrera said that his company as well as other equipment manufacturers are working on infrared oven technology to help bring down energy costs, adding that Casa Herrera is looking at improving the energy efficiency of all of its equipment.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Irvin pointed out that overcapacity is a looming issue within the tortilla industry. Later, he followed this up by stating that his concerns regarding overcapacity relates to smaller manufacturers buying large tortilla lines but then only running them 8 hours a day. Companies need to use these machines at least at 85% capacity for them to make sense as an investment, he added.

On a positive note, Mr. Beach noted that tortilla acceptance is to the point that he no longer views tortillas as a specialty product but a staple of the American diet.

While manufacturers have to be focus on yield and getting the most out of what they make, Mr. Irvin cautioned against selling inferior products. Tortilla manufacturers not only representing their businesses but the industry as a whole, he said, adding that he would rather a line be down as opposed to making waste or putting subpar products in bags to sell.