Food safety a top issue for milling industry

by Keith Nunes
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DEL MAR, CALIF. — Going into 2011, food safety stands at the forefront of issues facing the milling industry, said the new chairman of the North American Millers’ Association.

Paul Maass, president of the Commercial Foods division of ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, emphasized the importance of food safety to NAMA as the political environment in Washington changes and as consumer habits change as well. He spoke with Milling & Baking News Oct. 16, a sister publication to the Food Safety Monitor and a publication also owned by Sosland Publishing, at the NAMA annual meeting at the L’Auberge Del Mar in Del Mar.

A host of regulatory issues will merit attention in the months ahead, Mr. Maass said. He cited sodium reduction as an example of an issue of keen interest to milling’s largest customers — the baking industry. Biotechnology also was to be on the millers’ plate.

“And there is food safety, the high likelihood of increased regulation and its impact on our businesses,” he said. “How do you effectively help our membership prepare for that and navigate through that?”

In recent years, NAMA has focused on product promotion as a way to ensure continued strong, and ideally growing, demand for milled products.

“We’ve asked, how do we spur growth in consumption of our product?” he said. “I also would say we need to focus on what could hurt it. What keeps me up at night when it comes to running ConAgra Mills and serving as NAMA chairman is food safety and concern about a food safety recall.”

Mr. Maass said the Peanut Corporation of America recall represented a completely different breed of food crisis and one that merits close attention from the flour milling and other food ingredient industries. He warned that a flour contamination would be a very complicated problem for the company and the industry.

“If you look at what happened with P.C.A., it was peanut butter as an ingredient that caused this massive recall effort,” he said. “It made consumers terribly sick. It caused devastation for the company’s customers and damage to the various brands. Now, Peanut Corporation is gone, completely destroyed.”

P.C.A. represents a template for a nightmarish scenario for flour milling, Mr. Maass said.

“Flour is a raw agricultural ingredient,” he said. “There are products that reach the consumer in which that flour is uncooked. In most cases, it is cooked, going through a validated kill stage. But think about the web we cast as an industry, all the products our flour goes into, all the customers who consume those products, if there was a significant recall, with any one of our member companies.

“If you compare that with a packaged product recall, it’s completely different. You pull the product off the shelf, tell consumers what to do with it. It’s difficult and costly, but it’s contained and done. When you think about ingredients, the definition of where it has been, where it is at, it’s a completely broader web. That’s what we saw with P.C.A.”

Mr. Maass emphasized a view expressed by others in milling that food safety should not be a competitive issue. He suggested companies could and probably will try to demonstrate their attention to food safety, but the downside of a crisis means everyone has an interest in making sure no crisis takes place.

“One bad actor could spoil the bunch, the entire industry in the event of a crisis,” he said.

NAMA must understand the changing environment, including from the perspective of consumers, Mr. Maass said. As an example, he recalled participating in a meeting in which the head of quality for ConAgra Foods was speaking, discussing food safety issues with top managers of ConAgra Mills.

“She was challenging us to think about things differently,” he said. “Our past assumptions are not safe to use today. An example she used was frozen pizza. She said there is a trend among college kids to take frozen pizza out of the freezer, let it sit on the counter, and eat it raw. Everyone in the room cringed, thinking, ‘You must be out of this world.’

“Well, we had just hired a gal a couple weeks earlier from Drake, and she was sitting in there. She raised her hand and said, ‘What’s the big deal? My roommate and I do it all the time.’ The exact person she was talking about, college kid was right there. The understanding of the consumer, that’s something for NAMA, for our industry.” FSM
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