WASHINGTON, DC, US — From ensuring trucks carrying grain or flour are able to move smoothly between the United States and Canada to developing protocols to keep flour mills safe in the midst of a global pandemic, the North American Millers’ Association has experienced a storm of activity over the past five weeks, said James A. McCarthy, president and chief executive officer.

In an April 14 interview with Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain, McCarthy offered an update of issues the milling industry has confronted as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Two NAMA meetings — its spring conference in late March and its policy conference in late April — have been canceled. Mr. McCarthy remains optimistic the group’s 2020 annual meeting will be held Oct. 1-3 at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, US, as scheduled.

The NAMA office has been closed since March 13, the day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. The decision to work remotely was made following consultations with Robert Harper, chairman of the NAMA board.

Central to NAMA’s response has been identifying COVID-19 related areas of focus for different staff members to ensure the organization’s response was as effective as possible.

“When this crisis arose, in consultation with the staff, I made a couple key decisions,” he said. “One was to divide up the responsibilities of the staff because I knew there was a lot that was coming at us from a lot of different angles. We wanted to make sure we were covering everything.”

McCarthy’s principal role has been representing NAMA within the The Food and Beverage Issue Alliance, a group NAMA helped establish more than five years ago together with the American Bakers Association, the Consumer Brands Association (formerly the Grocery Manufacturers Association) and a number of other food industry associations.

The group has had direct communications with Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for Food Policy and Response at the Food and Drug Administration. McCarthy also has had calls with the staff of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The interactions have been on behalf of the FBIA but also have allowed McCarthy to directly address issues of concern to milling.

“We needed to be sure we were getting grains to the mills,” he said.

Toward that end, numerous transportation matters were of concern to millers, and McCarthy said he and Kim Z. Cooper, who joined NAMA in 2019 as manager of government affairs, have worked on transportation issues related to COVID-19.

Matters addressed by McCarthy and Cooper included loosening of hours of service regulations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. He said flexibility also has been sought with regard to approving certain driver’s licenses on a temporary basis and pursuing waivers on weight limits from certain states, allowing larger truck weights.

Cooper also has been a point person for NAMA with regard to details of the Coronavirus Relief Bill (the CARES Act).

“We are not necessarily out there seeking money for the milling industry, but we have been supportive of some financial assistance to frontline employees in our industry,” he said.

For technical matters associated with milling and COVID-19, the NAMA point person has been Dale Nellor, vice president of government and technical affairs.

Nellor was responsible for tracking developments at the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with particular regard to FDA regulatory activities and personal protective equipment, such as masks, social distancing and related areas. He also has focused on milling ingredients.

“Dale has been very effective in providing awareness to FDA on the potential impact of supply chain disruptions of ingredients important to the milling industry such as benzoyl peroxide and enrichments” McCarthy said. “Right now we aren’t seeing ingredient shortages, but we want to be prepared to assist NAMA members quickly if the situation changes so product continues to flow.

Other important transportation issues include one pursued with the Ag Transportation Coalition, seeking to make sure truck stops would remain open nationwide.

“There was a measure afoot to stop the trucks from going into truck stops across the country,” McCarthy said. “The states were closing them down, and the truck stop operators’ privately owned ones were being shut down because of COVID-19. Both of those have now remained open.”

Another potential disruption averted was a proposal that would have required truck drivers moving either way across the US-Canadian border to self-quarantine for 14 days following the border crossing.

“We worked with the Canadian Millers Association and with the Ag Transportation Coalition to reverse that, and we also worked with the task force at the White House and the DHS (the Department of Homeland Security),” McCarthy said. “DHS got directly involved in that to make sure that those drivers as long as they weren’t getting out of the cabs and doing a lot of socializing or anything like that then they did not have to quarantine.”

Responding quickly to numerous issues emerging in Washington while still consulting with the milling industry’s leadership was critical,  McCarthy said, and NAMA established what it called a mini task force for this purpose. Members of the task force included Dan Dye, CEO of Ardent Mills, LLC, Denver, Colorado, US; Harper, president of Hopkinsville Milling Co., Hopkinsville, Kentucky, US; D. Ford Mennel, president of The Mennel Milling Co., Fostoria, Ohio, US; and Rick L. Schwein, president of Grain Millers, Inc., Eden Prairie, Minnesota, US. The group holds conference calls twice weekly with NAMA staff.

“Often there’s a letter that’s been proposed, and we’ve got to get it to the   Hill today,” McCarthy said. “I need a quick turnaround. So I’ve used that task force of our board to essentially allow me to get quick answers on topics that come up. It’s been very effective, very helpful that those four members could say ‘yes’ or ‘I think we better raise this up to the full executive committee.’”

Spearheading communications with the milling members has been Christopher Clark, vice president of communications and administration.

Among the more consequential issues NAMA and the broader food industry is addressing is preparation for the possibility milling employees test positive for COVID-19. Given the nature of the pandemic, the likelihood of such a development is high, Clark said.

“Right now you can see that hitting some of these other food categories, really detrimentally to the meat industry,” he said. “Certainly that is something that we really wanted to move fast on and help our members prepare for.”

Engaging various federal agencies with FBIA and other food industry partners, together with guidance from Hogan Lovells US LLP on food law/regulations, as well as DSM Strategic Communications on crisis management communications, has been key to ensuring the milling industry is prepared, Clark said.

The range of issues facing NAMA’s staff has been a considerable challenge, McCarthy said.

“I have been very proud of the staff,” he said. “They are extremely nimble and really stepped up to the plate and made important progress for the milling industry.”

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