WASHINGTON — A whirlwind of American Bakers Association activity that has not let up one iota has helped bakers navigate significant challenges and kept baked foods headed toward retail customers at unprecedented volumes, said Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of the ABA.

The challenges ABA has encountered in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic and key steps the group has taken were described by Mr. MacKie in a March 24 interview with Milling & Baking News. The crisis bubbled up abruptly about 10 days earlier, he said.

The group’s initial priority was ensuring appropriate steps were taken to care for the group’s team and their families.

“Then we quickly shifted to understanding what we need to do to keep our members operational,” Mr. MacKie said. “In the end, it all comes down to how do we keep the country fed. We quickly shifted to what are the critical steps we need to do to make that happen.”

Early decisions included one to “really crank up communications” to ensure bakers received information, Mr. MacKie said. Additionally, the group quickly worked to collaborate with a coalition of 60 food and beverage supply chain partners.

The group already had a meeting scheduled for mid-March and changed the agenda to understand what the group needed to do as a category and develop action plans, Mr. MacKie said.

“The very first thing the coalition did was to call on the designation that came out beginning with the 9/11 critical infrastructure process in 2002  that included the food and beverage industry as part of the critical industrial infrastructure for the country,” he said. “No one was really focused on it. They were rightly focused on the medical community. We immediately jumped into the breach. Our group is working very well together.”

From a practical perspective, a key initial step taken by ABA was issuing certification letters at the plant and distribution levels. The letters, which affirm that individuals are indeed part of the food industry, are provided to employees traveling back and forth from production plants to present to law enforcement or other authorities in case they are stopped head to or home from work.

“On the distribution side the route sales representatives, the merchandisers will carry them with them, again with their ID, so that they can then show the documents if for whatever reason they get stopped on the way to and from the retail outlets,” Mr. MacKie said. “We’ve heard from our members that this has been critically important in terms of making sure that they get operations done. We’ve had some folks who’ve been stopped. By and large it has really helped our folks again stay operational as well as be able to distribute the product to the market.”

The ABA fast-tracked the certification process because of the urgent need in many parts of the country. Normally, wording for such certification would first be cleared by the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Transportation, Mr. MacKie said. Given the rush of demand for product in so many markets, including those with working restrictions, Mr. MacKie said the ABA made the decision not to wait.

“The other thing that we did that was so important is we again, with our partners in the supply chain, we worked with the Department of Transportation to waive the Hours of Service rules,” Mr. MacKie said.

Such waivers are common when emergency declarations are declared, in the event of a severe winter storm or a hurricane, he said. The waivers give drivers latitude to be on the road a bit longer than allowed by HOS rules, important and needed flexibility under current circumstances.

“We wanted to get in front of that quickly,” Mr. MacKie said. “We’re just trying to remove barriers and obstacles to getting the food to the customers.”

With the coalition, the ABA also played an important communication role with the public during the first days supermarkets experienced a rush of demand, Mr. MacKie said. The objective was to “calm the market,” he said.

“It wasn’t a matter of food supply,” Mr. MacKie said. “It was a demand issue. Our folks are cranking. They’ve doubled and tripled their production, and in a lot of cases it was just a matter of getting the word out. So we created this social media campaign. Again, we’re working with our 60-plus food and beverage supply chain partners to get that word out.  There won’t be a supply issue so as long as we can operate and get inbound ingredients, we can continue to make bread and cookies and other baked goods that go into the market.  That was historic to see. Are there localized shortages? Yes. Is the full array of products that the industry makes available? No. But the big items, the high-volume items are very much plentiful, and they are continuing to be produced all over the country.” 

The breakneck pace of bread and other baked foods purchases will not be sustained over time, but Mr. MacKie suggested fundamental long-term shifts in consumption patterns are possible.

“I don’t think you’ll see the high volumes we are seeing now,” Mr. MacKie said of what may transpire longer term. “It would be interesting to see over the long term if people kind of return to their basics, their core essential products like bread and rolls and other products we make.”

The baking industry has been eyeing the foodservice sector, where layoffs because of COVID-19 have been severe, for potential additions to the workforce.

“One of the reasons why they are looking to restaurants is because most of the restaurant employees have some basic fundamental understanding of basic food safety and HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) and things like that,” he said. “Because they’re in a food environment.  If they’re laid off, could we partner with them to bring them into bakeries to help out either on a temporary basis or if it turns into a full-time operation.”

Keeping associates at baking companies safe is a top priority and a major challenge, Mr. MacKie said. He offered as an example calls he received from two members over a brief time span expressing concern that retailers were narrowing the window when baking deliveries were allowed at stores, in some cases during heavy periods for consumer shopping. The baking executives said the proximity between the driver salespeople and shoppers was putting their workforce at risk.

“I got on the phone with my colleagues and good friends at the FMI as well as National Grocers Association,” Mr. MacKie said. “I asked them, ‘Can you get the word out to your members the bakers need more flexibility? If we could move those delivery service windows into non-business hours overnight, the bakers will deliver product whenever the retailers need it.’  We’ve already seen the results of that in the field. Is it perfect? No.  You just want to minimize those interactions so again to protect the health and safety of our merchandisers and distributors.”

To keep up, members of the ABA team have been reaching out to members to gain insights into what is occurring on the ground and to identify needs the association may be able to help address.

“It’s important work,” he said. “We’re on the fly. We have been for about 10 days now. The team’s work has been absolutely phenomenal.”