Leading industry executives enthused about checkoff prospects

KANSAS CITY — What are the thoughts of leading grain-based foods executives about plans to explore a checkoff program? Given current consumption trends and the high expense of effective product promotion, a checkoff program may be the best option, perhaps even the only option. Even as they expressed concern about the possible cost of such a program and commitment to a process that thoroughly explores its feasibility, the executives all voiced excitement about the potential impact of a grain-based foods checkoff program.

Dan Dye, Ardent Mills

Dan Dye, chief executive officer, Ardent Mills, Denver

The gap between the quality of flour-based foods and the public perception of the products makes Mr. Dye believe a greater investment in product promotion would pay off.

“Our core products are affordable, a great source of health and nutrition, and an important part of a balanced diet,” he said. “They are a staple, and people like our products. So, how do we do a better job telling that story?”

While the success of other checkoff programs doesn’t guarantee the same results for milling and baking, Mr. Dye said it is difficult not to be impressed by the current public perception of eggs given how poorly they were viewed through much of the late 20th century.

“Today, there is an egg on almost every dish you can order at a restaurant, at least as an option,” Mr. Dye said. “Pork, especially bacon, also have had impressive turnarounds.”

A thoughtful approach will be crucial if a checkoff program is to succeed over time, Mr. Dye said.

“Money doesn’t solve every problem,” he said. “You’ll have to figure out how you’ll use the resources.

“Checkoff is a way for flour millers and bakers to collectively participate as an industry — demonstrating that we’re all working together. I think there’s real value in that approach. It requires everyone to step back from their own company lens and look with one vision toward the future and for the industry to look as a whole. We collectively will be part of building this for the next generation.

“I think about whether there is a way we can leave a legacy to the next generation. To be able to say, ‘We made a difference. We had an impact. We pulled together resources in a way to change the story, change the thinking, change the momentum to help our industry prosper.’ And it’s not just for our businesses, but to provide great food, health and nutrition for consumers.”

While committed to moving thoughtfully through the feasibility study, Mr. Dye finds the status quo unappealing.

“If you don’t do anything, you aren’t going to change anything,” he said. “And with a checkoff program if in the end we’re not effective, if it isn’t enough dollars, we can always step back.”

Pete Frederick, Grain Craft

Peter Frederick, president, Grain Craft, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Worsening trends in consumption of flour-based foods in recent years require the industry to take a hard look at possible solutions, Mr. Frederick said.

“The Grain Foods Foundation’s purpose is to promote the grain-based foods industry,” Mr. Frederick said. “That’s why it was created. There is empirical data that consumption of grain-based foods has been flat for a while and now is beginning to drift lower, especially in certain categories. What are we going to do about it as an industry?

“The working group is committed to having an open mind to study the feasibility of doing this. It won’t happen at the wheat level. It needs to happen at the product level.”

While crediting the G.F.F. with an effective job of building the scientific case for inclusion of grains in the diet, too many consumers remain misinformed on the subject, Mr. Frederick said.

“Messaging is important — how you deliver a message in what is a cluttered, muddled and jumbled mess of what people hear and how people feel about grain-based foods,” he said. “You need to make it clear. There must be an emotional appeal. There has been negative press on what we manufacture. It’s time to push back on that.”

Confident the G.F.F. has engaged the right outside groups to put the best possible plan together for grain-based foods, Mr. Frederick still cautioned that the program, if approved, will be expensive.

“It’ll be a big commitment on a lot of people’s parts,” he said. “It requires considerable due diligence.”

Vince Melchiorre, Bimbo

Vince Melchiorre, senior vice-president, Bimbo Bakeries USA, Horsham, Pa.

Calling the current feasibility stage an important first step in the process to determine the viability of a U.S.D.A. checkoff program, Mr. Melchiorre said the initiative has the potential to be a “game changer” for the grain-based foods industry.

“This is exciting work,” he said. “As an industry, we are at an important crossroad in terms of our ability to keep the baked goods category relevant and growing with today’s consumers. Working in a unified manner, with strong leadership from the Grain Foods Foundation, to find the most compelling way to tell our story to consumers is critical to the long-term success of our industry.”

Allen Shiver, Flowers Foods

Allen L. Shiver, president and chief executive officer, Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, Ga.

Our category has such a great story to tell, from a health and nutrition standpoint or as an economic way to feed the family,” Mr. Shiver said. “The exciting thing about checkoff is that we would have a system to generate significant marketing dollars to tell the consumer all the reasons to buy bakery

Acknowledging that the “devil is in the details,” Mr. Shiver said the key to success will be achieving an industry-wide commitment. He suggested the possibility of funding the program with an assessment through primary industry ingredient suppliers.

“The reason we need checkoff is to generate large enough marketing investment dollars to move the needle when it comes to growing consumer demand,” he said. 

The grain-based foods industry spans a broad range of companies, Mr. Shiver said.

“The definition of grain-based foods is pretty encompassing,” he said. “It will take some solid thinking to determine the way the funds are generated and collected, doing that in a manner that incorporates the entire industry, both retail and food service. The program needs to be very inclusive of all grain-based foods companies.”