Since the last International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) three years ago, the baking and snack industries have changed dramatically. Some instances such as the deadly product recalls following tainted ingredients supplied by the Peanut Corp. of America set into motion a flurry of activity — as well as federal legislation in the form of the Food Safety Modernization Act — that has affected daily operations and how  bakers respond to food safety concerns.

To assess today’s state of the industry and address these myriad issues as IBIE 2013 nears, Baking & Snack’s editorial team sat down with a panel of experts who contribute regularly to our magazine. We held a freewheeling roundtable during the American Society of Baking’s and BEMA’s “Best Week in Baking” early this year.

Our panel included: (pictured below, from left) Theresa Cogswell, head of BakerCogs, Inc.; Jim Kline, president, The EnSol Group; Donna Berry, 20-year technical editor, writing for various trade magazines, including Baking & Snack; and Jeff Dearduff, vice-president of operations, ARYZTA North America.

In this report, the panelists talk about what keeps them awake at night. Let’s drop in on their conversation and find out what they have to say.

Baking & Snack: What worries you about the future of the industry? What are the big unknowns?

Theresa Cogswell: The thing that keeps me up at night is the same thing that kept me up at night when I worked for Wonder and Hostess, and that’s food safety. We have seen brands brought to their knees and evaporate overnight because of poor food safety, whether it’s allergens or pathogens.

Jim Kline: Certainly food safety, but also employee safety as it relates to the more sophisticated equipment and leaner operations. That concerns me.

Jeff Dearduff: To hook onto that, I would say concerns about labor and talent keep me up at night. Finding qualified talent to work in bakeries is getting more and more difficult, and this drives you in one of two directions. You either suffer with what you can get, or you put capital into your facilities and take labor out. But there’s a fine line between handcrafted breads and handcrafted-like breads and robot-made automated breads.

Are we understanding you correctly that you feel there is a risk that talent is disappearing?

Mr. Dearduff: There is a risk that talent is disappearing. You can always get people to man the line, but finding qualified people, who can notice when something is not right, is difficult.

Ms. Cogswell: A proactive, trained person to troubleshoot.

Mr. Kline: Someone who can react to a problem.

Mr. Dearduff: Yes. They hear something, smell something, see something, feel something that’s not right, and they raise a flag and get it fixed.

Is this a symptom of the industry, or is this a generational trait?

Mr. Kline: You can go back to a speech that was given by a president of the American Society of Baking 40 years ago that spoke to labor issues and skill, but the one thing I disagree with is the question, “Is this a risk?” It’s not risk; it exists. It’s not an “if;” it’s there.

How can bakers evaluate which employees are worth investing extra money in training?

Mr. Dearduff: Some bakers bring in temporary workers, put them on a line and tell them, “Watch this go by,” or “Watch this fall into this hole.” Then, there are other companies that bring in temporary workers who are required to go through safety training and GMP training. They get some job-level training before they go on the line.The training might last a day, or it might last a week. With temporary workers, it’s usually no more than a day, but at least, they get that. When they don’t get that training, that’s when you see more accidents and food safety ­incidents. And obviously, productivity tanks.

Mr. Kline: Training is important. We talk about it a lot, and we have the resources within the industry, especially with AIB International. Yet we don’t make use of those resources. We still haven’t gotten to the level of sophistication to really make use of training and to understand the implications of a well-trained workforce. That sort of ­surprises me.

Is it because of pressure on the bottom line?

Mr. Dearduff: I think so. That’s really what it comes down to, but it’s shortsighted.

Ms. Cogswell: But employees can’t be out of the bakery for weeks to take a course at AIB. That’s not possible.

Mr. Dearduff: No, but I remember years ago, we hired a team of people that could go into a bakery and fill a supervisory position, so if you wanted to send someone for training for 16 weeks, you could. But as companies get leaner and leaner these days, how do you take somebody out of the process when you have no one to replace them?

Ms. Cogswell: Years ago, there was a group within Interstate Bakeries called Dolly Madison University, and it provided both internal and external training. However, those departments were cut decades ago.

What influences outside of the baking industry also create cause for concern?

Donna Berry: The fear of miscommunication keeps me up at night, whether it’s from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, from GMO freaks or whomever. It’s that ignorant person who takes off with an issue, either in the press, on Twitter, Facebook or other media outlets. How do you prepare yourself to respond to those kinds of issues?

Ms. Cogswell: The economic impact from the woman who started the pink slime blog is completely unknown, but we know companies went out of business. At least 600 people worked in one company alone.

Ms. Berry: It’s very, very scary. As a communicator, it scares me that I could say something that could be misconstrued and even taken wrong by the industry. In general, not knowing who is going to say what is a horrific fear, and that does keep me up at night, thinking about what that could be and wondering if I am prepared to respond to a blog or tweet.

The baking industry had its Atkins moment, and it did not respond well. We got the Grain Foods Foundation off the ground, but it was still a shock.

Ms. Berry: I attended a presentation that featured three media monitors who get paid to monitor social media, websites, everything that’s going on out there. There is a whole force of people at food companies that spend all day reading what is going on. They literally monitor how many hits each topic receives. Then, they have teams to respond.

If companies have such teams in place, they can be a huge asset. Just as food safety is scary, so are the social media. You need to have someone on your communications team who is prepared to respond to anything on social media anywhere that can damage your reputation.

These companies said their websites allow customers to make comments, and they don’t remove the negative ones. They have the right to, but they don’t because that would actually make it worse. But these companies need to respond quickly with a valid argument. People are allowed to have opinions, especially with products coming back to the marketplace. I encourage bakers to have something in place.

Ms. Cogswell: I think your point is incredibly well taken because today, with social media, your brand could be dead before you even know you have a problem.

Mr. Dearduff: If I sat here all day, I would not have thought of social media being an issue that would keep me up at night, but you all are right on.