For Len Heflich and Valerie Wayland, chairing the Food Technical Regulatory Affairs Committee (FTRAC) of the American Bakers Association (ABA) means there’s never any downtime.
FTRAC’s seemingly endless list of hot-button issues constantly changes as the committee proactively responds to the latest proposals from the Administration, Congress, Food & Drug Administration (FDA), US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Federal Trade Commission or any of the many federal and state agencies that govern or regulate nearly every aspect of how baking companies manufacture, package, distribute, market, merchandise and sell their products on a daily basis.
According to Mr. Heflich, the job was easier a decade ago because there was a greater spirit of collaboration and much more open communications from government agencies and among the various food associations. During the past few years, the process has become much more difficult and complex due to the lack of transparency throughout the nation’s capital.
In this exclusive interview, Baking & Snack asked Mr. Heflich and Ms. Wayland to discuss what concerns bakers will have as they head to the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), Oct. 6-9, at Las Vegas. For further information on ABA’s committees, visit www.americanbakers.org.
Baking & Snack: What are the most critical issues for FTRAC in 2013 and why?
Len Heflich: Last year, I said biotech wheat was at the top of the list. Since then, we have seen 27 states and the US Congress write bills requiring mandatory labeling of biotech ingredients in food products. So far, none have passed into law. The California voter initiative was voted down after a tough and expensive fight. Meanwhile, farmers are still clamoring for biotech wheat. Seed companies continue to develop and release new varieties of biotech corn that push yields higher and risks due to disease and drought lower, further increasing pressure on wheat acres. This trend will continue. The alleged recent discovery of a few plants of biotech wheat on an Oregon farm will likely give the issue greater visibility and controversy.
This year, the most critical issue facing the industry is the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). A critical new requirement of it is that a manufacturer must validate and verify the efficacy of food safety activities — easy to say but very difficult to do. So far, FDA has released draft guidance on only four of potentially 52 topics on which they must issue guidance or regulations. These four initial documents add about 1,000 pages to the existing food safety regulations. When the agency is finished, the additional guidance could total more than 7,000 pages. Who has time to read, understand and comply with 7,000 pages of new guidance?
ABA has commented to FDA on the released guidance, and we are stressing the need for simplicity and flexibility. Unfortunately, we are one of the only voices in Washington, DC, stressing this point while other groups are asking FDA for more guidance. ABA spearheaded an effort to ask for an exemption for depots and warehouses that store packaged ingredients and finished products [at ambient temperature], and FDA agreed. This was a big win for our industry that will reduce the complexity and cost of complying with FSMA.
The industry needs to take the lead in defining programs and practices designed for our specific needs and risks. Government cannot possibly anticipate all possible products and manufacturing processes when writing guidance on how to implement a necessary program. If ABA does not assertively take the lead, FDA will stretch its authority to tell us what to do and how to do it. This would be a critical loss for industry, consumers and FDA. You can count on ABA to be active in this process.
Ms. Wayland: I agree. At the top of the list is FSMA. FDA has set an ambitious schedule for rolling out new requirements emphasizing food safety and security. With FSMA, we can expect new preventive controls, increased FDA inspections and enforcement authority, and an increase in overall regulatory requirements for food manufacturing and food storage facilities. The passage of FSMA is just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s imperative that FTRAC continues to work with FDA regulators throughout the rulemaking process.
Additionally, obesity and health-related issues remain key concerns in 2013. Against this backdrop, our industry must continue to heighten consumer awareness of the benefits of enriched and whole grains and their importance in a healthy diet.
How have the issues concerning your committee changed since the previous IBIE?
Mr. Heflich: It has become a cliché to say it, but the world today is more complex and faster than it was three years ago. This puts stress on all elements of the supply chain. Retailers and consumers are more demanding and less tolerant. Enhanced documentation and programs are demanded by government, customers and third-party auditors. Efficient systems are an absolute competitive necessity today.
Ms. Wayland: In fall 2010, the industry had just been through an outbreak of Salmonella enteritidis in eggs, the economy was shaky, and FDA was still amending its proposed food safety legislation, now known as FSMA. Key issues of concern on the FTRAC agenda were biotech wheat, mitigating the formation of acrylamide in foods, responding to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations, sodium reduction, high-fructose corn syrup, addressing the impact of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act on the baking industry, front of package (FOP) labeling proposals and federally mandated menu labeling.
In the midst of all of this, the committee was working with members of Congress emphasizing the impact of the proposed food safety legislation on the baking industry and urging the timely passage of the act. ABA worked diligently to ensure that provisions in the legislation were not overly burdensome and provided for flexibility as FDA regulations to accompany the law were developed. Three years later, the committee still faces many of the same issues, and food safety continues to dominate the agenda.
What challenges do bakers face this year that they didn’t three years ago?
Ms. Wayland: Preparing to implement the proposed FSMA rules is definitely a challenge for bakers this year. We are responding to the release of two new proposed rules under FSMA, and it is clear the focus on food safety is shifting from reactive to proactive. As we comment on the proposed regulations and provide feedback to FDA, bakers must prepare to revamp their food safety plans. The proposed rule regarding preventive controls would require written food safety plans to prevent and correct food safety issues.
Bakers also are facing a volatile commodities market, an increasing demand for “natural” products and a “cleaner” food label.
Mr. Heflich: Some of the big changes include continued industry consolidation, the apparently permanent increase in commodity costs, increased food safety regulations — imposed by both government and third-party audits — and the demonization of gluten. These factors have increased pressure on bakers — on sales, margins, systems, programs and management.
There is no science behind the drive for gluten-free diets for healthy people who are not sensitive to gluten. In fact, there is science that demonstrates it may be harmful to consumers who are not gluten intolerant. Unfortunately, there is a lot of anecdotal support for gluten-free in the media. ABA will continue to support the communication of sound science.
How will these challenges change the way bakers and exhibitors approach IBIE 2013?
Mr. Heflich: I think bakers will be looking for equipment and ingredients that can help them improve quality, reduce waste and decrease costs. These are not new themes, but the pressure to implement is greater now than ever.
Why should bakers be involved in FTRAC?
Ms. Wayland: A key benefit is the collaborative approach to understanding and navigating the regulatory requirements that affect our industry. FTRAC is not a competitive forum. Instead, it fosters consensus on key issues that impact the food industry with a focus on issues that specifically affect bakers. Tackling issues and addressing regulatory concerns together, as an industry, is a much more effective approach to understanding and responding to the ever-changing regulatory environment. Companies participating in FTRAC are on the cutting edge of current and new regulatory issues. The knowledge gained through committee involvement helps companies proactively respond to a wide range of regulatory initiatives and issues.
Mr. Heflich: Bakers need to be involved with ABA if they want their issues to be heard and addressed in DC. ABA is unique among trade groups in DC in that it focuses on bakers and their allied support. ABA collaborates with many other trade groups, increasing our reach and influence. We have outstanding committees of dedicated industry experts that help us give unified feedback to our government that it appreciates and takes seriously.
In 2012, FDA indicated it’s revising the Nutrition Facts panel and looking at Front of Package (FOP) labeling. In 2013, we are still awaiting an FDA decision. How might these changes affect bakers in the long run?
Mr. Heflich: FDA is still promising to implement changes in the nutrition label. It promises not to modify the iconic look of the Nutrition Facts panel but can be expected to make enhancements in the labeling of sodium, trans fat, added sugar, calories and maybe other parts of the label. It wants to make it easier for consumers to make good food choices. That goal seems to be the problem — more information can make it more difficult for consumers to choose. ABA has been vocal in opposing any label that implies good food vs. bad food. Our position is that there are bad diets, but not bad foods. Moderation, reasonable portions and exercise are keys to a healthy lifestyle.
ABA will continue to be actively involved in the activities surrounding the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s review that is already underway to ensure bread and grain foods retain their portion of the plate. As a MyPlate National Strategic Partner, ABA has been an active and visible partner with USDA to develop communications tools about the health benefits of grains through an educational video series.
Ms. Wayland: Any required changes to the Nutrition Facts panel or FOP labeling will have a direct cost to bakers since packaging and labeling would need to be updated. Also, while increasing consumer awareness of calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars will likely be positive in the case of more wholesome products, it could have a negative impact for foods considered more indulgent, including some baked goods. In the long run, educating consumers on balancing their food choices should accompany any labeling changes — doing otherwise would negate the intentions of any proposed revisions.
What other key nutrition and labeling policy trends might affect bakers in 2013 and 2014?
Mr. Heflich: The recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on sodium intake included recommendations to FDA and USDA about continued sodium reductions. The report cautioned against large reductions in sodium that were being considered by FDA and USDA. This is good news especially for baking because grain-based foods were identified as a major source of sodium in the diet and, therefore, a major target for reduction. This report should dampen this movement a bit.
It is interesting to note that consumers have shown no interest in reduced sodium foods, in spite of the preponderance of media and government agency proclamations about the need. The IOM report recognizes that the science supporting the recommendations to reduce sodium is weak at best. ABA weighed in with IOM last fall to request that additional panelists be added to the review committee and to ensure there was sufficient expertise for a balanced review; our efforts paid off.
Ms. Wayland: Sodium reduction and efforts challenging the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status of salt is one key trend for this year and next. Others include claim substantiation, defining the term “natural” food, “clean labels” and state efforts to require the labeling of genetically engineered foods and ingredients. Efforts to maintain our rightful position on the USDA MyPlate and in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will also be a priority for ABA and its membership.