Enhanced communication, a heightened focus on sustainability and an elevated level of milling industry engagement are three areas expected to draw greater attention from the North American Millers’ Association (NAMA) in the months and years ahead, said Jane DeMarchi, the group’s new president.

In an Oct. 6 interview with Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain, DeMarchi reviewed the proceedings of a NAMA board meeting conducted a few days earlier while also offering her preliminary thoughts on future priorities for NAMA. The association’s board met via Zoom Oct. 2 when NAMA’s annual meeting had been scheduled. The Oct. 1-3 meeting was to have been held at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, US, but was canceled because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In taking charge at NAMA, DeMarchi has inherited an extant strategic plan and took a go-slow approach when asked about potential new areas of focus.

“I really feel like it does take a little bit of time to take a breath, see what’s happening and then determine what are the most important strategic priorities,” she said. Still, she said it was clear progress was needed in communications, membership expansion and addressing sustainability.

While hesitant to offer specific details on communications (“stay tuned,” she said), DeMarchi said the association’s website needs updating and external communications also could be enhanced.

She said sustainability is a topic that she has been discussing with the Executive Committee.

“All along the supply chain, sustainability and climate change have been hot topics of conversation and action,” she said. “We fully expect it to play a central role in Congress in the next two years as well. Keeping that in mind, that’s an area where we have a role for sure.”

Elevating industry engagement has many facets, including improving involvement from current members and associate members and recruiting new milling members.

“We need to be sure we represent the full industry both from our milling members and our associate members,” she said. “There are some new players in milling. We want to make sure that they’re aware of NAMA and how NAMA can help them. There are some smaller millers out there. Some of them are in ancient grains, but a lot of them are in wheat and oats also. I’m planning to reach out to them.”

Fiscally solid

Despite disruptions from the pandemic that included the cancellation of numerous meetings during 2020, the organization’s fiscal health remains solid, DeMarchi said.

“I would say that NAMA is fortunate,” she said. “We are on firm fiscal footing. Some trade associations have really been devastated by the current economy and lack of meetings and the like, but we are in good shape.”

In passing a budget, she said the group took a “conservative approach” in terms of keeping a lid on prospective expenses and perhaps deferring possible initiatives.

Among issues of concern to the millers on the not-to-distant horizon is publication of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Even with the election impending, DeMarchi said NAMA’s manager of government affairs Kim Z. Cooper remains confident the publication will remain on track, regardless of the outcome of the vote.

As part of a broad wheat-based foods coalition known as the Grain Chain, DeMarchi said NAMA has been communicating with the DGA writers about the importance of enriched grains in a healthy diet, as well as the value of whole grains, which was powerfully affirmed in the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee earlier this year.

Focus on flour safety

After a rash of high-profile product recalls in 2016 tied to the contamination of flour by microbes or allergens, the milling industry has enjoyed a period of relative quiet for the last year or so. Still, DeMarchi said flour safety remains front and center for NAMA and the Food and Drug Administration.

“FDA’s interest in flour safety is big topic of conversation, and so is their recent publication of what they’re calling the New Era of Smarter Food Safety,” she said. “The FDA views that as sort of their North Star for the next 10 years.”

Issued in July and built from the Food Safety Modernization Act, Stephen M. Hahn, MD, FDA commissioner, described the initiative as a blueprint for taking food safety to a new level. Among its core sections is enhancing traceability and developing better tools for prevention and outbreak response. Hahn cited as a particular concern recurring outbreaks of illnesses associated with the consumption of certain foods and said the FDA intends to strengthen procedures and protocols for conducting the root cause analyses that may identify how a food became contaminated and inform understanding of how to prevent such contamination from happening again.

In recent years, flour has been the subject of product recalls with a small number associated with foodborne illnesses.

“The feedback we’re getting from FDA is milled grains are on their radar,” DeMarchi said. “That’s something that we have to be mindful of as we go forward into the future as well.”

DeMarchi said the future course of the FDA also is not likely to be dramatically affected by the election outcome.

“FDA hasn’t changed that much under this administration,” she said. “It’s one where there’s been a carry-through. That’s why we don’t expect FDA to change that much even if there is a Biden administration.”

While it may not affect the publication of the DGA or the direction taken by the FDA, the election will, of course, be highly consequential for NAMA and its members, DeMarchi said.

“The election is right around the corner and so for us what that means is that 2021 is going to be an important year for NAMA members to come to DC to lobby members of Congress and to meet the administration officials,” she said. “Regardless of the outcome of the election there will be new faces in the administration. So typically, we have our policy conference in May in Washington.”

Conference plans for 2021

The importance of NAMA membership participation in the conference was emphasized at the board meeting, DeMarchi said.

“It will happen in 2021,” she said. “It may not happen in May when it’s typically scheduled but we will do something. Our meetings are really important to us, and they are such a good opportunity for networking and for education. Our members are really disappointed that we’ve had to cancel our meetings in 2020. We’re focusing on working with our meetings committee to make sure that we can deliver education and networking opportunities for our members in 2021 in the safest way possible.”

The group’s spring conference currently is scheduled for April 16-20, 2021, in Orlando, Florida, US.

Of very immediate interest to the NAMA board is whether another stimulus package will be adopted.

“Our priorities for that include liability relief and tax incentives for front line workers,” DeMarchi said.

Breadbasket checkoff program

An update on the Grain Foods Foundation (GFF) and the breadbasket checkoff program was provided to the board by Dan Dye, chief executive officer of Ardent Mills LLC and a member of the checkoff steering committee.

“The millers are very supportive of the bakers’ desire to have a promotion program, and we’re just very hopeful that a plan can be agreed on, and we can move forward,” DeMarchi said. “Supporting the bakers is the No. 1 goal, and then I would say there is a strong sense that promotion of grain-based foods is vitally important to the industry — to our customers and to the millers and to the growers.”

The NAMA board meeting was held about two weeks after the GFF requested the withdrawal of publication of a draft Order for the establishment of the checkoff. The abrupt withdrawal followed an intense flare up of opposition to the program by certain baking companies that specialize predominantly in supplying foodservice rather than retail customers.

“(NAMA members) really want to see the bakers coming together on a path forward, and there is concern that a very rancorous process is probably not good,” DeMarchi said. “There’s also a recognition that the current level of investment is not going to be as effective as the higher level that had been proposed in the checkoff.”

Regardless of the checkoff status, NAMA members remain committed to continuing to support the GFF, she said.

DeMarchi also cited good work by the Wheat Foods Council and the Home Baking Association.

She credited the WFC for success in conducting a highly targeted program directed toward athletic trainers and for overcoming the difficulties posed by COVID-19.

“They showed you can be successful even though they had to cancel so many of the meetings they were going to participate in,” she said. She particularly cited videos WFC has created promoting wheat-based foods.

“The hits on their videos have skyrocketed,” she said.

The HBA has enjoyed an increase in demand for home baking educational materials during the pandemic in parallel with a major step up in home baking, she said.

Praise for new chairman

DeMarchi had high praise both for the outgoing NAMA chairman, Robert Harper, president of Hopkinsville Milling Co., Hopkinsville, Kentucky, US, and the incoming chairman D. Ford Mennel, president of The Mennel Milling Co., Fostoria, Ohio, US.

“Robert has been so dedicated to NAMA over many years, and his fingerprints are in a lot of different areas of the association,” she said. “He was just a terrific leader. Coming from a smaller company that’s really committed to the association I think has been great for the other members to see. And Ford is a terrific leader. You can just see with what’s happening at Mennel Milling they’re expanding and doing a lot of exciting stuff, and so I fully expect his energy to leave an impression on NAMA for the next two years.”

DeMarchi’s lifelong connections to grain-based foods

In hiring Jane DeMarchi as president of the North American Millers’ Association, the milling industry has gained a leader with previous experience at NAMA and with deep, multi-generational roots in the grain-based foods industry.

A 1990 graduate of Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, US, DeMarchi’s first job in Washington was as director of government relations with NAMA from 2004 to 2010. She held a similar position at the National Association of Wheat Growers from 2010 to 2013 before being named vice president of government and regulatory affairs of the American Seed Trade Association, where she remained until returning to NAMA as president in September.

DeMarchi’s memories of the grain-based foods industry far pre-date her work with NAMA. Her father Dick Blum for many years led Blossom Industries, a Cleveland, Ohio, US-based business that provided engineering and equipment to large production bakeries as well as in-store supermarket bakeries.

“When we were kids my dad used to take us on sales calls on our way to family ski trips,” she said. “There was a bakery in New York — Kaufman’s Bakery — that baked rye bread, and when we were little kids we were allowed to go into the production area and take the hot bread off of the conveyor belt and eat it. I mean you can’t imagine that this could happen today — I don’t even think we’d be allowed in the building.”

DeMarchi’s great-grandfather, Saul Blum, was a flour broker early in the 20th century.

“When I started at NAMA back in 2004, I really did not know what to expect,” she said. “It was my first job in DC, but I had some family background, and I was already passionate about the industry.”

The areas of focus at NAWG and ASTA also gave DeMarchi experience she is confident will be helpful as NAMA explores new priority areas.

“Working at two other associations really provided me some additional perspective on the industry but also insights into how to run an association and how to operate in Washington,” she said. “So I think it’s a good time for me to be coming back to NAMA after I had those experiences.

“ASTA was very focused on innovation. So I’ve kept up with what has been happening in the corn and wheat areas in terms of the innovation at the seed level. I believe that will help us as we look at supply-chain issues moving forward into the future and with innovations that are coming in wheat in particular.”

She cited as an example an initiative by Grain Craft aimed at increasing wheat acreage planted to varieties preferred for their milling and baking qualities.

“That’s exactly what we want to encourage in the industry as much as we possibly can,” she said. “There are issues with competition, so you have to be careful as a trade association when to get involved, but any time we can bring more collaboration along the value chain, the better.”

L. Joshua Sosland is president of Sosland Publishing Co. and editor of Milling & Baking News. He may be reached at jsosland@sosland.com.