SEA ISLAND, GA. — Wheat quality is not meeting the requirements of highly automated, modern baking plants, said Hayden L. Wands, vice-president of global procurement, Grupo Bimbo S.A.B. de C.V.

A failure of bakers, millers and breeders to communicate more effectively is to blame for the gap between the quality produced and what is needed, Mr. Wands said in an Oct. 20 panel discussion at the annual meeting of the North American Millers’ Association at The Cloister in Sea Island. The panel was moderated by Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of the American Bakers Association. It also featured Marshall Maddox, president, The Bakery Cos., Nashville.

Mr. Wands used a colorful analogy to describe the mismatch between hard red winter wheat varieties currently in widespread cultivation and the need of baking companies like B.B.U.

“Our bakeries used to produce 70 loaves a minute,” he said.  “Now they produce 150 loaves a minute. The room for error is much more limited. I talk to producer groups about this. Essentially, I tell them with their wheat, they make a very good 8-track tape. But I don’t have an 8-track player anymore. We’re well beyond that. Again, we have not communicated with them what we need, and I think as industry we need to do more of that, get our message back.”

The clean label movement has contributed significantly to the need for better flour quality, Mr. Wands said. Bakers have considerably less latitude than in the past when it comes to adding ingredients aimed at improving the functionality of flour/dough. Bimbo has reduced the number of ingredients in some of its bread and baked foods by about 25%, he said.

“What that means to the industry is we are taking out the additives,” he said. “We have to rely more on the functionality of the flour. Twenty years ago we could throw in an additive if the functionality wasn’t there. Now we can’t do that. So, flour is becoming much more of a key ingredient than it ever was before.”

Mr. Wands said a number of popular varieties in the hard winter states have been unsatisfactory for the last several years.

“Everest being the No. 1 example,” he said. “It was hugely planted in Kansas, and it was a very poor performer for us in terms of flour functionality. What we want to do is work with the millers to promote the varieties that have better functionality from a breeding and producing standpoint.”

The argument that millers and bakers are unwilling to pay for quality doesn’t hold water, Mr. Wands said.

“Growers are looking for some type of reimbursement for some of these lower yielding varieties,” he said. “And I give them the example of our bakery in Topeka, Kas. The flour comes out of Wichita. Right now our blend in that mill is 75% winter wheat and 25% spring wheat. We’re bringing spring wheat down from North Dakota into the heart of hard wheat country. So, we’re paying for quality. We’re just not paying hard winter farmers for that quality. We need to work with the breeders and with the growers to promote better functionality in the varieties.”

Mr. Wands said B.B.U. is using more spring wheat than ever before and that baking plants in Central and South America are using more spring wheat as well — principally Canadian wheat.

“Again, it’s because of functionality,” he said.

In addition to industry-wide pleas for better varieties, Bimbo is pursuing enhanced quality through identity preservation programs in Canada and Argentina as well as programs with U.S. milling companies that have identified top varieties they are seeking from growers.

“The milling companies are promoting those varieties,” Mr. Wands said. “We are really looking at testing an I.P. program in Kansas and Texas, looking at bringing in one specific variety into our bakeries, homing in on that functionality.”

Bimbo is relying heavily on suppliers to help the company with innovation and similarly is counting on vendors to ensure Bimbo is able to fully participate in any disruptive innovation that hits the packaged bread sector, Mr. Wands said.

“From an innovation perspective, we don’t have the resources to do that from the inside,” Mr. Wands said. “We look at our suppliers to bring us new and innovative ideas. We partner with them, and we hope one or two of them stick.”

A different facet of flour quality was presented by Mr. Maddox of Bakery Cos.

“We need a lab test that correlates well to bread quality,” he said. “You can have the highest protein in the world, and you can’t make bread out of it. So there is a missing component here. What is the functional baking quality? Not the lab quality.

“If that gets communicated to us, even if it isn’t perfectly compliant, if it’s somewhat off spec, or not perfect, if it’s communicated to us, we can manipulate our process in the bakery to make bread. But we need as much consistency as you can provide and as much advanced notice as you can provide. If you do that, we have a great chance of making great bread.”

Mr. Maddox began his remarks with an overview of privately-owned Bakery Cos., noting that the company has grown rapidly and now has sales of $110 million a year and 500 associates. In addition to five baking plants, mostly in Nashville, the company owns a cold storage facility and is part of a joint venture that operates a baking plant in Guatemala.

The company views itself as a provider of solutions for the baking industry with customized formulation, nutrition and packaging, and its customers include Conagra Brands, Inc.; Flowers Foods, Inc.; Pepperidge Farm; and numerous quick-service restaurant operators.

To ensure it meets the needs of its demanding customer base, Bakery Cos. must depend on its suppliers, Mr. Maddox said.

“If you want business, you need quality, and if you want quality, you better have reliability,” he said. “That means customers can count on them every day in a predictable manner, to have a predictable product. If you want to be reliable, the easiest way to do that is with consistency. Consistency in what you do has a huge impact on our ability to service our customers.

“Our customers change their minds all the time. That rolls down on us to be flexible.”

Working with a wide range of baking companies has given the Baking Cos. a glimpse into how the baking market has been changing over time, Mr. Maddox said.

“Our customers want a bunch of different formulations,” he said. “Whole grain 15 years ago was a cutting-edge product for the industry. Today it is absolutely mainstream. It is in every school system today.

“Organic is becoming mainstream. It hasn’t caught on like I thought it would. I thought it would really push the industry forward, but it is becoming mainstream. Walmart launched organic more than two years ago. Kroger is huge in organic space, pushing organic bread aggressively.

“We’re now seeing a lot of products with sprouted grains. Many of our customers are asking for sprouted grains. High fiber is a challenge for bakers, but as technology moves forward, we will continue to get better.”