LITCHFIELD PARK, ARIZ. – Major league baseball teams from such cities as Kansas City, Los Angeles and Milwaukee gather this time of year in Arizona to hone their skills and prepare for the upcoming season, so it’s only fitting that pasta manufacturers from locations even further away are meeting this week in The Grand Canyon State to do the same.
Pat Regan, chairman of the National Pasta Association, opened the 2015 N.P.A. annual meeting on March 9 at the Wigwam Resort with an enlightening discussion on the N.P.A., ranging from where the association has been to where it may be heading.
In reflecting on the N.P.A.’s success over the past several years, Mr. Regan, who is vice-president and general manager of private brands – pasta, ConAgra Foods, Omaha, drew attention to the efforts of the association’s Technical Affairs Committee, calling it “one of our most active and highly successful committees as part of the N.P.A.”
He said the committee has been focused on the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“They have been very involved to make sure that we have input on the document, to make sure that we understand what that document is telling us, and make sure our manufacturing plants and our facilities are safe so they meet the new requirements that the new Food Safety Modernization Act is going to put upon us,” he said.
The Technical Affairs Committee also has reviewed and created a guide to minimizing Salmonella risk in pasta facilities and is making these materials available to N.P.A. members and the entire food industry.
“I think everybody believes that pasta is a very safe food,” Mr. Regan said. “That it, in general, is a low risk food. But the fact is Salmonella is a problem for the food industry in the United States, and because it has been a recent problem the government will put more pressure on us to be perfect in this area. The Technical Affairs Committee has spent a lot of time creating an understanding of what it means for the pasta industry, and they are doing some very specific testing to ensure that our manufacturing facilities are 100% free of Salmonella and there is no risk. The last thing we would ever want to have happen is some Salmonella to get into one box of pasta and one person can get sick. If that were to happen we could see 20% of pasta sales drop overnight. So this is really important and they are doing excellent work.”
The Technical Affairs Committee also continues to work with the N.P.A. counsel to identify food safety legislation that can impact N.P.A. member companies, he said.
A second area of success for the N.P.A. over the past few years is on durum research. Mr. Regan said the association has worked with North Dakota State University and has made two grants as an initial investment. The expectation is to substantially increase durum research efforts going forward, he said.
“We see this effort supporting the durum industry as being a very important foundational piece of work that we have to do as an industry,” he said. “We’ve got to support durum. We’ve got to do more to ensure that this is a viable crop, that it is always there when we need it and it’s the right quality.”
Mr. Regan said the N.P.A. also continues to be successful in its educational campaign. He said the Pasta Fits campaign has been “phenomenal.” He applauded the association for putting positive messages into the marketplace about pasta to counteract what he said has been some negative media publicity. In just its second full year, Pasta Fits reached 264 million people in 9 months, he said, and the N.P.A. has decided to spend to make sure messaging continues.
Finally, Mr. Regan said legislative activity has stepped up. The N.P.A. has increased its visibility with federal agencies to impact industry issues. One example includes the association’s response to the recent release of the proposed Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015.
“The regulation could put a negative perception on refined grains, and those refined grains would include durum,” he said. “If that happens that just puts a negative halo around pasta. So we’re working hard to try and influence that issue.”
He also said the N.P.A. is working to increase whole grain pasta consumption within the WIC program.
“Right now pasta is not a part of that, and we’re trying to get a whole grain included in that as an opportunity to expand pasta consumption,” he said.
Successes aside, Mr. Regan identified two main challenges facing the pasta industry: volatility in the durum market and consumer perceptions.
“We continue to fight negative perceptions,” he said. “These consumer perceptions are oftentimes manufactured perceptions that are created by the media. A new book comes out and all of a sudden they’re on Oprah or Dr. Oz, and they’re talking about the impact of the diet without a lot of science. So, there is going to have to be some effort around these two areas if we want to protect our industry.”
He said the N.P.A. in recent months has begun collaborating with the International Pasta Organization to see how the two groups might work together to make a difference.
“We’re spending and investing to have more of an impact,” he said.
Casting an eye to the future of the pasta industry, Mr. Regan said the N.P.A. needs to focus on durum research.
“I think the challenges we see with cross lines, with competing crops, with all the issues … I just feel we have to spend more time here,” he said.
He also made a plea for new blood within the association.
“The organization needs more people, it needs new people,” he said. ”Many of us have been doing pasta a long time, and it’s great to have that industry and knowledge and experience, but it can be like boring ants. So it’s great to see so many new people in the audience today.“This is really the challenge for the future -- is focusing on these two areas of opportunity, making sure we keep the N.P.A. a vibrant and active organization going forward.”