Whole grain industry given glimpse of supply chain landscape

by Editorial Staff
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MINNEAPOLIS — Representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bay State Milling, Kraft Foods and Compass Group addressed the major challenges, opportunities, motivators, successes and breeding frontiers for the supply chain as it pertains to whole grains as part of a May 20 panel at the 2012 Whole Grains Summit at the Hilton in Minneapolis.

While some of the panelists comments did not relate directly to whole grains, they did illustrate some of the issues that arise in many food supply chains.

As an agriculturalist/biologist, Craig Morris, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service Western Wheat Quality Lab in Pullman, Wash., mentioned four things that everyone is aware of, but are the “big gorillas in the room.”

Those items are: the current rate of population growth is unsustainable; the amount of arable land is essentially at its limit or decreasing; the amount of non-saline water is pretty much at its limit; and the western levels of energy consumption are not sustainable.

“Everything that we do, whether during our careers, our children’s careers, our grandchildren’s careers, is going to be influenced by those four things in big, big ways,” he said.

Challenges for grain handlers

Further up the chain, Michael H. Pate, vice-president of research and development at Bay State Milling Co. in Quincy, Mass., spoke of the challenges grain handlers such as Bay State have when tasked with handling a wide variety of commodities. He said millers have taken on the role of being the gatekeepers on food safety and food demands in the United States.

“Our concern today is how to manage two channels of wheat,” Mr. Pate said. “We manage conventionally bred and produced grain, and we also manage organic grain. It’s our perspective that 5 to 10 years from now we’ll be managing a third channel, and that will be transgenic or genetically-modified wheats. Transgenic wheats are in the grain houses. We’ve seen them. We know about them. They’re on their way.”
Another element of concern is food safety and food defense.

“Those of us who engage with the Department of Homeland Security on a regular basis are told that although the food industry is not a good vector for a terrorist attack, the repercussions would be huge,” he said. “If someone were trying to adulterate a grain stream or grain supply it’s not very efficient because of the constant blending … but the repercussions would be huge.”

Kraft invests in research

From a food company perspective, developing reliable sources of a consistent quality becomes a critical concern, said Richard Black, vice-president of nutrition at Kraft Foods Global, Glenview, Ill.

Using a slide to illustrate that 100 lbs “in” of refined flour results in 72 lbs “out,” while 100 lbs of whole grains “in” results in 100 lbs “out,” Mr. Black said whole grain flour “shouldn’t be more expensive, but it is.”

“If we can solve that, we solve a huge problem,” he said.

Mr. Black said Kraft has invested heavily in research and development on whole grains. In 2009 the company provided 4.1 billion servings of whole grain, and by 2014 hopes to get to 13 billion servings. Some of the company’s products that will be receiving a whole grains’ boost are Premium saltines, which by 2014 are expected to have 5 grams of whole grains per serving, up from 0 grams currently, and Wheat Thins, which are expected to have whole grains content raised to 22 grams from 11 grams by 2014.
He acknowledged, though, that achieving the targets will not be easy.

“There is all kind of interaction within the company,” he said. “It’s not just saying ‘We can do this. This is easy.’ You have to get buy-in from all parts of the company, all around the place. You need business alignment, achievable financial goals, consumer acceptance, and then you have to build a platform and brand consumer messaging. It’s possible. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort.”

Food service opportunities

Representing food service, often the last step before the consumer, Jennifer Ignacio, nutrition communications manager at Compass Group, Rye Brook, N.Y., said she is seeing improvements in two of the barriers to serving whole grains: supply and consumer acceptance.

“What we’re seeing is wellness is continuing to grow as a focus,” Ms. Ignacio said. “We’re seeing a big trend toward customers looking for quality versus the old school kind of diet concepts, and they’re really looking for positive messaging. People are not interested in us taking things away from them at this point. They want high quality food that they understand, and if it’s healthy for them that’s great as well, but we’re seeing a big push toward quality.”

Ms. Ignacio said another opportunity food service sees for whole grains is continued recipe development around the use of a single whole grain ingredient, particularly those that do not already have a popular refined version.

“We find it a little bit more difficult to switch people from white pasta to whole grain pasta, but we find it much easier to introduce quinoa,” she said. “So things consumers don’t know the existing refined grain version of we find much easier to introduce in our business.”

In a question-and-answer session following the panelists opening remarks, Ms. Ignacio was asked if the supply chain could deliver one new product today, what would it be. She said right now it probably would be bread for the deli. Compass Group is a major food service supplier to institutional customers such as universities and major corporations.

“If we could find a great, new way to present a sandwich on whole grain that customers would be really accepting of I think it would have a huge impact,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of success lately with the Arnold Sandwich Thins, in part I think because of the fact they’re different. They’re not just a whole grain version of something we already have. They are a different concept.”

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