For Len Heflich, chairing the Food Technical Regulatory Affairs Committee (FTRAC) of the American Bakers Association (ABA), means there’s never a dull moment. In some cases, FTRAC members must batten down the hatches when the latest regulatory storm from Washington, DC, sweeps across the baking and snack industries.
In other cases, FTRAC requests all hands on deck when responding to the latest proposals from the Administration or Congress to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Federal Trade Commission or any of the 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.
This interview with Mr. Heflich and Valerie Wayland, a 15-year veteran of FTRAC, is part of an exclusive series from Baking & Snack on how ABA’s key committees affect its members’ bottom lines and why more bakers should become more involved in the association’s activities.
For further information on ABA’s committees and their priorities, visit www.americanbakers.org.
Baking & Snack: What are the most significant critical issues for FTRAC in 2012, and why?
Len Heflich: Biotech wheat has to top the list for several reasons. Biotech wheat has the greatest potential impact on the baking industry — both good and bad. Good for crop yield, reducing the risk of crop failure due to drought or disease, availability, price stability, wheat competitiveness with other crops, enabling of no-till farming practices, reduced pesticide/fungicide use — and longer term, maybe even for improved baking quality attributes or true consumer benefits such as increased antioxidants, higher protein and more. These are big opportunities that will likely drive biotech wheat into the market whether our industry is ready for it or not.
It’s bad because of the risks associated with introducing a biotech-sourced product when there are potentially consumers who don’t want bread made from a biotech crop or because of foreign countries that do not allow for exporting of biotech crops to their countries.
There is also the possible risk of a Starlink-type event with wheat and the inability to effectively segregate biotech from non-biotech wheat streams in commerce. Additionally, there are such issues as lack of consensus on allowable tolerance for biotech wheat in non-biotech streams, the increased cost of non-biotech wheat to those who want to avoid it and the inability of farmers to reuse seed, as they typically do. The issues are difficult, complex and coming at us quickly. Will we be ready?
Valerie Wayland: At the top of the list is the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Through new regulations and guidance, 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, increased enforcement authority granted to FDA 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 works with FDA regulators throughout the rulemaking process.
Obesity and health-related issues will also continue to be key concerns in the coming year. Against this backdrop, the baking industry must continue to bring awareness to the benefits of enriched grains and whole grains and their importance in the diet.
Why should bakers be involved in FTRAC, and how might their companies benefit?
Ms. Wayland: A key benefit is the collaborative approach to understanding and navigating the many regulatory requirements that affect our industry. FTRAC is not a competitive forum but rather a setting that 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. For companies, FTRAC participation provides a direct benefit of being 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: Under ABA’s policy of consensus for policy positions, all companies have an equal voice at the table. FTRAC helps keep companies up to date on how to comply with the regulations. It also allows bakers to have input to new regulations. ABA is one of the most respected trade groups in DC and through integrity, hard work, recognized technical expertise and industry support is able to have significant input into the process.
Recently, FDA indicated it’s revising the Nutrition Facts panel and looking at front-of-package (FOP) labeling. How might its efforts affect bakers in the long run?
Mr. Heflich: Changing the Nutrition Facts panel will play havoc with manufacturers and create confusion among consumers with little or no benefit to them. Many claims we can make today would be invalidated or require reformulation.
FDA also expressed some concern about manufacturers using FOP labeling to emphasize the benefits while ignoring the negative nutritional elements, but the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)’s Facts up Front is a comprehensive approach that could be used now to help consumers rather than waiting for FDA to provide guidance that could take years.
ABA has suggested to GMA and the Food Marketing Institute that their approach be enhanced to acknowledge enriched grains as a good source of folic acid and that there should be an additional icon option for whole grain recognition.
Ms. Wayland: Any required changes to the Nutrition Facts and/or FOP labeling will have a direct cost to bakers as updates to packaging and labeling would be required. 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 food products 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 concerns should bakers have when it comes to the government’s efforts to monitor and control food marketing to children?
Ms. Wayland: A major concern with the government’s current approach to marketing food to children is categorizing foods as “good” or “bad.”
Bakers have weighed in as part of the dialogue to ensure that the message provided to the consumer and children is the overall nutritional benefits of the total diet, and not just the individual foods, emphasizing how all foods — including enriched grains and whole grains — can be a part of a healthy diet.
What other key labeling trends might affect bakers?
Ms. Wayland: Sodium reduction and efforts challenging the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status of salt, claim substantiation, defining the term “natural” with regards to food products and wheat biotechnology are issues that will continue to be front and center in 2012.
Mr. Heflich: A joint FDA/USDA notice calls for a 1,000-mg-per-day reduction in sodium intake per person, in order to get to what they define as a tolerable upper intake of 2,300 mg per day. Grain-based foods contribute 40% of daily sodium intake — 1,320 mg per day — so they are a target for reduction. However, to meet the FDA/USDA adequate level, the industry would have to reduce the sodium content of all foods by 55%. That is huge and cannot be achieved with current technology without impacting consumer acceptance.
Why should bakers be concerned about GM wheat that’s not going to affect the industry for the next seven to 10 years?
Ms. Wayland: The concern with GM wheat is that it’s generally expected to impact our industry — either negatively or positively — at some point in the future. Currently, we don’t know how we’ll be affected. Given that uncertainty, we can’t afford to sit back and remain silent on this subject. We need to have an understanding of the potential impact of GM wheat and what it means to the developers, the growers, the users, and then ultimately, the consumer. Our efforts now will help shape what happens in the future.
What issues will you address when making congressional visits this year?
Mr. Heflich: Commodity costs continue to be inflated beyond what market fundamentals indicate. Excessive speculation in the markets is one suspected cause that Congress could address by placing restrictions on speculators.
We will also be voicing our concerns regarding major cuts targeting the USDA Agriculture Research Service lab research resources for wheat quality. We are already making plans with other industry groups for a joint fly-in in March 2012.