It’s not just flour’s baking performance that determines a successful miller-baker relationship. Also important are reliable transportation, continuity of supply, dedicated customer service and demand forecasting, according to Horizon Milling’s Jeff Zyskowski, the miller’s vice-president and commercial leader, Wayzata, MN. In this exclusive Q&A session, Brian Walker, Horizon’s technical service manager, described the collaborative process for setting flour specs at the start of a new crop year. Both provided insight into Good Handling Practices for flour and the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Baking & Snack: How has Cargill and Horizon Milling improved supply chain logistics for commercial bakery flour? Why did the company do this? Can you and/or your bakery customers document the results of these actions?

Jeff Zyskowski: I view four points as key to our work with customers. First, we work closely with the customer on transportation modes to make certain they are reliable, appropriate and cost-effective. This could be truck, rail or a combination of truck and rail to deliver in the most cost-effective fashion.

Second, we plan actively to ensure day-in-day-out continuity of delivery to cover situations of severe storms, hurricanes, a mill being down or other limitations in local conditions. We work closely with customers prior to such events. It’s a big advantage for Horizon Milling to have a large national footprint with multiple mills available to work with customers in case a change of source is required.

Third, we have a dedicated customer service team as our first point of contact. The team can anticipate changes to ensure the customer gets the needed supplies. These trained professionals make every effort to ensure we meet, and hopefully exceed, our customers’ expectations.

Fourth, we do a lot of demand forecasting, both seasonal and based on customer history. These can be monthly and weekly trends that help us and the customer stay in front of the business. On a longer-term basis, we formally sit down with customers at budget time to look six, 12 or even 18 months in advance. And each month, the sales team works with its customers to update the projections. We base trending on both point-to-point real-time contact and statistical tools.

All four are needed to provide the full package that ensures customers get their flour supplies when they need it.

What do you advise your bakery flour customers about writing specs so they get what their products need?

Brian Walker: We write flour specs every year according to customer needs. There are two types of customers. There are those whose specs don’t change much year to year, and we make their flour to fit those needs. When crop conditions require, we’ll bring in what we can to keep the flour constant. The other type of customer bases his specs on the crop average. With these customers, we work to come up with the most meaningful specs for that year’s crop.

For example, we held a conference call with a customer a few weeks ago to discuss 2012 crop season conditions. The crop this year was early because of the warm spring. We answer the following questions for customers: What kind of transition between crops can be expected? What is the supply of the current crop as we transition into the new one? What might the differences be?

The key is communicating the transition and its timing, giving the baking industry the indicators of what will be different in protein and in test results.

When transitioning to the next crop, we look for performance satisfaction at the bakery level. We don’t want to write the spec until the flour is performing to expectation. That’s when we write the specs. Traditionally, it’s best to write specs after transition, after everyone — the miller and the baker alike — is satisfied with their results. Until that point, the miller is adjusting its output, and the customer is fine-tuning its bakery performance, fermentation time, etc. Once we have everything moving in the direction of satisfaction, then we can put the numbers around the crop.

The duration of transition indicates how long — and how difficult or easy — it will be to write those specs. Every crop year is different. Sometimes it transitions quickly; sometimes, unfortunately, it drags out. The main thing is to meet customers’ expectations and goals. It’s all about consistent and through communication with our customers.

What objective measures (types of tests, etc.) do you supply to verify the specs and traceability of your flours?

Mr. Walker: Once transition is completed and the specs written, we routinely supply ash, moisture and protein numbers. We can also provide Farinograph and Falling Number, if requested. Those are the basic tests. Some customers require other tests. No two customers have the same requirements and analytical needs – that’s good for keeping us current and focused.

Mr. Zyskowski: Regarding traceability, we have Good Handling Practices (GHPs) in place at Horizon Milling. This discipline requires traceability throughout the process — from the wheat supplier to the miller to the bakery.

We perform monthly internal audits at all our facilities to assure compliance with our GHPs. Additionally, to further validate our methods, we conduct mock recalls at the facilities. Steps are put on motion at each site to look forward and backward.

Under the Bioterrorism Act, we are required to document one step forward and one step back. We are in full compliance with this, and that applies to our customers as well. Like all US food processors, they have to be able to document their supplies.

How will the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) affect the record-keeping responsibilities of users of flour? Will bulk flour be treated different from bagged flour? What do you advise your wholesale bakery customers about this matter?

Mr. Zyskowski: Even though the law has passed for the Food Safety Modernization Act, there are still regulations in some areas that are yet to be written by FDA. More authority has been granted to FDA to view records on preventive controls, but details have not been written in that area. In addition, there will be a needed implementation time for the industry, prior to enforcement of those regulations. So, FDA has the authority, but we do not know how they will exercise it, thus it is yet undetermined what that access will be. But it is not anticipated that bulk flour would be handled any differently than bag flour.

Horizon Milling is following FSMA carefully. We will be prepared for whatever comes forward and will work closely with customers to ensure we are in compliance.