Many milling positives in tough environment

by Josh Sosland
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The beautiful North Carolina countryside in its autumn splendor offered an excellent complement to the upbeat group of millers gathered recently for the annual meeting of the North American Millers’ Association. Milling has gained from numerous positives, many of which stem directly or indirectly from how it has responded to some of its great challenges. Millers have benefited from broad customer base diversification, a string (broken in 2013, unfortunately) of crops with unusually fine qualities, stable industry structure, using capital expenditures to improve existing facilities rather than adding capacity in a flat market and convincingly capable leadership.

The meeting’s positive tenor was especially rewarding given the many offsetting forces that are cause for concern, if not outright worry. In addition to the wrenching transformation under way in the industry’s core wholesale baking customer base, the millers continue to contend with fad diets and worrying flour usage trends, dismal export flour business, a less than robust economic climate, uncertainty over highly important food safety regulations, jarring market volatility and a precarious U.S. wheat production base.

Beyond the benefits milling’s leadership has brought to individual companies, this capable direction has been an immense plus for NAMA. A case in point was the strong contributions of the outgoing chairman — Paul Maass of ConAgra Foods, Inc. Truth be told, at least some nervousness about the term of Mr. Maass arose when, just before he took the NAMA gavel, he received a major promotion and challenging task as new president of his company’s Commercial Foods unit. This came at a sensitive time for NAMA, coinciding with the beginning of Mary Waters’ tenure as NAMA president.

Standing out among the group’s achievements in the past two years was a review of strategic priorities established not long after the association was created in 1988. The review affirmed the earlier goals, which begin with supporting and promoting efforts to increase consumption of milled grain products and promoting an adequate supply of optimum quality grains. In pressing for an even tighter focus on these objectives, the review prompted Mr. Maass to create two important new committees dedicated to nutrition and biotechnology.

The nutrition committee, chaired by Dan Dye of Horizon Milling L.L.C., is taking the deepest look yet at the potential benefits of fortifying flour with vitamin D. Stated most simply, milling is looking at what would be involved in turning flour-based foods into an “excellent source” of vitamin D. The issues under study include deciding which form of vitamin D to incorporate (D2 versus D3) and ensuring fortification remains intact in the finished product and that the vitamin does not affect product quality. The health benefits of vitamin D were described to the millers in the meeting’s general session by the preeminent expert on the subject — Dr. Michael Holick, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Holick’s enthusiastic presentation was as informative and as memorable as any talk given at NAMA in many years. He reminded that fortification of bread with vitamin D would not be new — the practice was widespread and heavily promoted in the 1940s. Whether the industry ultimately goes forward in pursuing fortification remains to be decided, but the proactive and cooperative work recognizes the potential promise of vitamin D for improving public health and the unique, collective advantage of working together for an industry whose products have unmatched dietary penetration. Wheat-based foods would benefit from meaningful positive news as a counter to the incessant negativism of wheat naysayers.

The biotechnology committee, chaired by John Gillcrist of Bartlett Milling Co., is focusing its work on participation in the Wheat Innovation Alliance, a wheat chain group dedicated to achieving acceptance for bioengineered wheat.

NAMA’s work in the past year included other areas such as education. Given the array of difficult issues confronting milling, heightened attention on nutrition and biotechnology reveals an organization focused on the industry and its bright future.

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