SEA ISLAND, GEORGIA, U.S. — Food safety issues held center stage over the past year at the North American Millers’ Association in a fundamental shift from how the topic has been considered the issue in the past, said James A. McCarthy, president and chief executive officer. When he first joined NAMA in 2013, McCarthy thought food safety as an agenda item would be limited principally to compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“It’s a low moisture product — I didn’t expect we would have recalls,” McCarthy said. “The first recall in 2016 was an allergen recall, peanut and wheat. The second recall was for a pathogen. That has really changed our focus.”
McCarthy spoke with Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain, Oct. 20 during the NAMA annual meeting at The Cloister, Sea Island.
“NAMA is really doing education on food safety, going out, educating fellow associations like the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Restaurant Association, making organizations aware you need to employ safe food handling techniques with flour,” he said.
He said in the aftermath of the 2016 recalls, particularly the contamination of family flour with E. coli, a technological breakthrough that would make flour safer remains an industry aspiration.
“But if there will be a zero tolerance, that will be very difficult to achieve,” he said. “Our education is on not eating raw flour, cookie dough or cake batter.”
NAMA has urged millers to print food safety information on bags of family flour, instructing consumers that flour contains a raw commodity and should be treated as such.
The contamination of flour with trace amounts of peanuts is being treated more as a supply-chain issue, McCarthy said.
“We are working with the National Grain and Feed Association to ensure cross contamination between wheat and allergens does not occur in rail transportation,” he said.
NAMA in June joined representatives from the NGFA, the American Bakers Association, the National Oilseed Processors Association and the Pet Food Institute in forming an industry working group to develop best practices for sanitary clean out of rail cars/tankers and trucks. Four NAMA member companies are represented on the working group.
Also emblematic of the importance of food safety to the group, NAMA has established food safety and nutrition subcommittees beneath the Technical and Regulatory Committee. A full day meeting dedicated to issues related to glyphosate is in the works.
The glyphosate issue grew in importance in the summer of 2017 when the compound was added to the Proposition 65 list of California, requiring labeling warnings to be issued for compounds that are believed to be carcinogenic. The carcinogenicity of glyphosate is a matter of considerable disagreement within the scientific community. Concerns about glyphosate residue in the wheat supply (the chemical is sometimes used as a pre-harvest desiccant for wheat) were heightened when a jury awarded $289 million to a plaintiff who said the chemical caused his cancer (the award was later reduced).
Also new at NAMA is a supply chain committee.
“When I started five years ago, there were problems getting grain to mills by rail,” McCarthy said. “With the supply chain committee, a new standing committee of the association, we are bringing in members with expertise in rail and trucking. Trucking costs have gone through the roof. We are trying to gather support on the hill to allow for more opportunities for young drivers to learn the ropes and get on the road. We think that might be part of the solution. We will work in Washington on the issue in coalitions.”
McCarthy said NAMA had been deeply concerned by the possibility that NAFTA negotiations over the course of the summer would fail, leading to a cancellation of the agreement. Within the group, the greatest potential damage would have come to oat millers, he said, noting the vast majority of oats milled in the United States are imported from Canada. A trade war between the countries could have adversely affected the pricing and availability of Canadian oats, McCarthy said.
Smaller, but also of concern, were flows of flour, in both directions, between the two countries.
Looking back over the past year, McCarthy took particular pride in the continued progress the organization has made toward building its influence in Washington regarding policy matters.
Examples he cited from the past year and earlier included active comment writing for the Food Safety Modernization Act; lobbying for improved transportation resources, including an adequate rail fleet; and, more recently, policies that encourage young people to consider careers as truckers; making the case that food aid should be in the form of in-kind versus cash grants; and fighting efforts that would have changed the definition of oat fiber in a way that would have proven highly disadvantageous to most NAMA oat milling members.
Food safety education, which has been a priority for NAMA since its strategic plan update three years ago and even more so after the E. coli outbreak in 2016. A webinar recently was conducted with the National Grocers’ Association, and the group also has worked with the Food Marketing Institute and a restaurant association. The webinar featured a presentation by Scott Hood, the director of global scientific and regulatory affairs at General Mills, Inc. In the presentation, Hood reviewed details of the discovery of E. coli in General Mills flour in 2016 and what the company has done in response to identify and eradicate pathogens in flour since then.
Additional education work has been conducted with the Family, Career, Community Leaders of America, a group dedicated to family and consumer sciences education. To help in these efforts, NAMA has created posters from a video created in 2017 explaining why raw flour and uncooked products made from flour should never be eaten. The poster has been sent to 5,400 educators.
These efforts are a part of work NAMA has done in cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration.
“They have encouraged us to get the message out about safe handling of flour,” McCarthy said. “FDA issued a press release that didn’t gain traction, and they are looking for help. They approved for family flour.”
The recommended language is:
“SAFE HANDLING INSTRUCTIONS: Raw flour is not ready-to-eat and must be properly cooked before eating to prevent illness from bacteria in the flour. Do not eat or play with raw dough; wash hands, utensils and surfaces after handling.”