COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Food safety has been a pillar of the milling industry’s strategic plan for years, but the issue has been elevated to an all-time high over the past year, said James A. McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of the North American Millers’ Association.

“Obviously the Food and Drug Administration flour recalls are the principal issue that we are focused on,” Mr. McCarthy told Milling & Baking News in an interview during the NAMA annual meeting at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. He was joined for the interview by Dale Nellor, NAMA vice-president, government and technical affairs.

In recent months, the F.D.A. has begun testing family flour from retail stores in an effort to measure the prevalence of pathogens in flour Mr. Nellor said.

He said NAMA has been working with the F.D.A. to explain what the milling industry has done to reduce the potential for a pathogen in flour and to educate consumers through groups like the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association as well as the Home Baking Association and the Partnership for Food Safety.

“We have expended considerable time and resources on this,” he said. “It has been a major objective of ours to get the word out that flour is a raw commodity and should not be eaten until properly cooked.”

Mr. McCarthy expressed frustration over the challenge of assuring a raw agricultural commodity meant to be properly cooked does not have any pathogens before it has been cooked.

“The prevalence of E. coli or any pathogen in flour is de minimis,” he said. It is frustrating that essentially we’re trying to accommodate a zero tolerance, which is probably impossible to reach. Even F.D.A. realizes that.  We’re trying to work with them but also trying to understand why this is a priority and seems to be becoming more of a priority for them where there are a lot of other areas in the food system that probably deserve more attention.”

Compounding the challenge for the industry is an inability to “flip a switch” in milling to eliminate pathogens, Mr. McCarthy said.

“The F.D.A. is saying there is a problem and needs to be addressed, but there is no easy answer to address it,” he said.

The F.D.A. is looking to technology to help advance food safety, and Mr. McCarthy said the seriousness with which the agency is looking for such solutions was elevated when Frank Yiannas was named a deputy commissioner.

A longtime executive of Walmart Stores, Inc., Mr. Yiannas was named deputy commissioner for food policy and response of the F.D.A. in December 2018. In the role he serves as the principal adviser to the F.D.A. Commissioner regarding issues related to food safety policy and implementation of the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

“He’s a big advocate for using blockchain technology, and I have raised with him from the grain perspective that it’s going to be very hard to trace back a particular lot of grain to a particular field and particular farmer,” Mr. McCarthy said. “The grain goes to the elevator, then goes to the mill, and there’s a lot of co-mingling and distribution that means tracking is not as easy as say lettuce from a field.  I know that’s primarily what he was thinking with regard to food safety, and he did somewhat acknowledge that for certain items in the food chain that’s going to be much more difficult to trace.”

Still, Mr. Nellor said blockchain or any solution should not be ruled out without thorough examination, particularly in view of the recent family flour recalls.

“I think a short answer is everything is on the table,” he said. “I think anybody who’s in this space is looking at how they can minimize their risk. Obviously if you have a company that has multiple facilities, the ability to maybe dedicate one facility that mills retail flour is easier than someone who has only one mill. So I think those are the questions that millers are asking themselves of ‘how do we mitigate this risk?’”

NAMA has been active in advocating the interests of the milling industry with the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and Mr. McCarthy expressed optimism that grains will retain at a minimum six servings (half being whole grains) in recommendations when the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 is published.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything in there like last time when there was concern about the dietary guidelines getting into sustainability and issues that were really outside of the purview of the guidelines commission,” Mr. McCarthy said. “So far this commission doesn’t seem to be steering away from its primary mission, and so overall I expect that we’ll have reasonable dietary guidelines to work with.”

Mr. Nellor saw particular promise in the D.G.A.C.’s focus on pregnant women.

“We view as an opportunity for the milling industry talk about the importance of enriched grains and fortified products in that diet and the importance of it,” he said. “And so that will be something that we focus on.” 

Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Nellor also highlighted progress achieved during the year by corn millers and oat millers, particularly in the area of research.

Mr. Nellor said efforts to gain federal funding for oats research appear to have paid off.

“On the legislative side of things, we spend a significant amount of time in the appropriation process, and on the research side of things we’ve been working the past several years in expanding the funding for oat research within the A.R.S. (Agricultural Research Service) system,” he said. “We’ve been successful in securing money — a million dollars last year. Both the House and Senate bills have new increases for the next fiscal year so that’s been positive, and then we’ve also spent a significant time with our partners such as the wheat growers in supporting additional research activities through the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative.”

Mr. McCarthy cited encouraging data regarding the healthfulness of corn and other grains for the microbiome. He said Corrie Whismer, a professor at Arizona State University, has shared research describing the benefits of corn for gut health and overall health.

“They’re finding now with microbiome that there are a lot of illnesses that are being associated with ingestion of various foods in the diet and her assumptions are that grains actually are particularly helpful in healthy microbiome,” he said.

While gluten-free dieting remains a headwind for the flour milling industry, Mr. McCarthy said the prevalence of the diet has diminished. Those with celiac and the small percentage of consumers with gluten intolerance will continue to avoid flour-based foods.

“I’m not saying that the concern about gluten is over but I do think it’s reached a point where people are better educated on it than they were,” he said. “A part of what we’re doing with the Wheat Foods Council is working with physical fitness experts, because that’s where a lot of the millennials are going for their health advice. We are educating physical fitness instructors on the benefits of grains in the diet.”

Supply chain is a third pillar of the NAMA strategic plan, and expensive rail demurrage costs have been an area of focus for the group over the past year. The association’s supply chain committee has met for a second time, and the group is focused on an upcoming Surface Transportation Board hearing on demurrage and on preparing comments on the topic for the S.T.B., Mr. McCarthy said.

“We’re also trying to work with our agriculture transportation coalition, which includes the American Bakers Association, the National Grain and Feed Association and other associations,” he said. “We are very proactive on trucking regulations as well. The Surface Transportation reauthorization bill will be before Congress at some point, so we’re trying to make sure that we have reasonable regulations with regard to things like hours of service and braking capacity and axle weights. There is a program called the DRIVE-Safe Act that would allow for interns 18 to 21 to start to learn to be truck drivers in the cab with over-the-road tractor trailer drivers. We think it will be beneficial because the number of tractor trailer drivers is decreasing dramatically relative to the demand. So we’re hopeful that this proposal before Congress will be enacted and allow for more younger people to get into the over the road driver business.”

Even if concern has diminished slightly from a year ago, glyphosate certainly remains on milling’s radar screen, Mr. Nellor said.

“The attention that it gets I think has declined a little bit,” he said. “Part of that I think is consumers and the public in some respects are numb to it. Any time we turn on the TV every commercial cycle there’s an ad for class action lawsuits. So when any new news comes out we don’t see the increase in consumer inquiries that we had in the past. With that being said though, it’s still a topic of interest. There is a lot of litigation still playing out in the courts not only with California Prop 65 but just on the cancer side of things related specifically to Bayer. It’s an issue we’re continuing to monitor, help our members, have conversations with our customers, trying to help them understand the supply chain and what the ramifications would be of either the elimination of glyphosate or trying to secure commodities that can be deemed glyphosate free.”

During the board meeting, Chris Giguere, chief financial officer, Iowa Corn Processors, Glidden, Iowa, was elected to the NAMA Executive Committee. He succeeds James Meyer, president of Italgrani USA, St. Louis.