Ever since he was about 8 years old, Howard (Robin) Alton has been attending the American Bakers Association (ABA)’s annual convention. Currently the CEO of the Pan-O-Gold Baking Co., St. Cloud, MN, Mr. Alton’s parents had been active longtime members. Now, at age 53, he will become the new chairman during the association’s meeting, which runs April 14-18 in Scottsdale, AZ.

For independent, family-owned bakeries like Pan-O-Gold, ABA provides a voice in Washington, DC, according to Mr. Alton. “ABA does the heavy lifting that we cannot afford to do on our own,” he said. “More importantly, we simply don’t have the time. Many independents and even middle-sized companies don’t have the time to follow all of the proposed legislation going on and how it will impact our companies directly.”

Volatile commodity prices followed by food safety and sustainability top the long list of issues for Mr. Alton as he assumes the position of ABA chair. During the past year, ABA worked with groups to get the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to approve a proposal to reclassify index funds as speculators as it pertains to their involvement in the commodities market, according to Robb MacKie, ABA’s president and CEO. While it’s a step forward, there are many other factors such as weather and international purchasing dynamics that are outside of ABA’s control when it comes to stabilizing commodities for the baking industry.

Perhaps one area where ABA can have some influence involves continued funding for research on improving wheat quality through the USDA Agriculture Research Service, noted Lee Sanders, senior vice-president, government relations and public affairs. ABA has called on key congressional members to ensure funding despite the rampant budget issues plaguing the nation’s capital.

Mr. Alton said he personally supports the development of biotech wheat, emphasizing that he’s not speaking for the ABA. “Companies need to make their own decisions on biotech wheat based on their needs and customers’ desires,” he noted.  “I believe it is  the only solution to feeding the world as the global population continues to grow,” Mr. Alton said. “We need to develop better strains of wheat that can tolerate drought.”

Reflecting back on his life in the baking industry, Mr. Alton, who previously served as chairman of the Independent Bakers Association, noted that the response to issues in Washington, DC, has sped up considerably over the years. “In 1970, when [legislators] said they had five to think about it, they meant five months,” he said. “Now, they mean 5 minutes. They want a response, and you have to be right on it because something else is coming down the pipe.”

Many issues such as food safety and commodity pricing remained the same over the years. “However, the complexity of the issues has grown immeasurably,” Mr. MacKie added.

In other related news, the ABA staff added that attendance for this year’s conference is slightly above schedule, and the early rounds for exhibit space at next year’s International Baking Industry Exposition are currently in progress.

For more information on ABA’s activities, visit www.americanbakers.org.