In a year in which business, the economy and government policy seem intrinsically linked, the new chairman of the American Bakers Association calls for the baking industry to become more involved in the process.

As one of his top priorities for this year, Allen Shiver, ABA chairman and president of Flowers Foods, would like the Washington, D.C., association to bring in new members and get current members more involved to multiply its effectiveness in shaping key policy decisions that can potentially impact bakers’ bottom lines.

“This is a year when many important decisions will be made and we need to maximize our use of ABA so our voice in Washington is heard,” Shiver notes. “ABA does a great job of making sure our industry’s concerns reach decision-makers.”

The Employee Free Choice Act, which also is known as the Card Check bill, tops Shiver’s list of key legislative and government issues. The proposed law would change how unions are allowed to organize employees, partly by taking away the secret ballot provision that is now in place.

During the past 16 months, that bill has been one of the biggest rallying points for the business community, which has become extremely organized to oppose the bill, says Robb MacKie, ABA’s president and CEO. Through lobbying and by getting its members to send thousands of grassroots letters to key legislators, the bill has stalled in the Senate after a handful of key Democratic legislators changed their positions from supporting the initiative to now adamantly opposing it, MacKie notes.

“The business community is focused and organized, and we’re not resting on our laurels and being very vigilant,” he says, adding that the bill or some form of it can emerge in the future. “It’s not very often when the diverse business community comes together like this, and ABA is playing a role in this effort.”

Shiver’s list of top legislative and governmental concerns also includes health care reform and food safety legislation.

Since the massive peanut recall last year, food safety has been on the front burner on both business’ and government’s agenda. Already, the House has approved food safety legislation, and ABA, working with other industry organizations, is seeking to modify a Senate version that might be more palatable to the business community.

Additionally, ABA and eight other groups have teamed together to sponsor workshops on food safety and improve the sanitary design of the equipment that produces snack and bakery products. For producers of bread products, Shiver says, the issue requires ongoing vigilance.

“Fewer foods are consumed more frequently than fresh bread,” he says. “Consumers have a strong trust that the breads they are consuming week after week are safe. One serious food safety issue can destroy that trust in both brands and companies.”

Recently, ABA also has worked with the Food & Drug Administration to conduct a bakery-specific risk assessment exercise, says Lee Sanders, ABA’s senior vice president, government relations and public affairs. Although the FDA doesn’t think of baked goods as a high-risk category, the agency along with small and large bakers conducted this exercise where an unnamed agent was introduced into a facility and then worked through the critical steps to correct the situation.

Additionally, ABA is currently developing a sustainability scorecard that will be available later this year as a resource for both bakers and bakery suppliers.
Another vital area this year will be nutrition labeling and dietary guidelines, the latter of which is being reviewed along with the Food Guide Pyramid. In addition, First Lady Michelle Obama launched a childhood obesity initiative that could impact the industry along with efforts by the Food & Trade Commission to monitor and regulate how food companies advertise to children.

Moreover, the ever-popular movement toward putting health and nutrition claims on the front of packaging labeling is an integral part of the Obama childhood obesity initiative, Sanders says, and the FDA has recently taken action against some food companies that have allegedly made misleading or inappropriate claims adding fuel to efforts to develop new policy in this area.

Overall, Shiver notes that he’s optimistic about the year ahead, despite the economic collapse of last year and the slow road to recovery.

“If you look at the rough waters the industry navigated over the last two years, it’s pretty remarkable that we’ve weathered the storm as well as we have,” he says. “Consumer response is still strong in all segments of the baking business and recent new products such as bagel thins and sandwich rounds are bringing a lot of excitement to the bread aisle.”

Despite some improvements that the retail side of business is improving, a recovery in the foodservice channel may lag behind retail because of high unemployment, continued housing problems and other economic difficulties that have impacted consumer shopping behavior and forced many of them to limit the frequency in which they are dining out.

On the other hand, the trend toward more healthful and nutritious products remains strong, and the outlook remains positive for those fresh-delivered baked goods that are merchandised property and deliver on their nutritional claims.

“Even though the economy is going through some pretty rough times, the fresh bakery category on a national basis is flat to up slightly, depending on the timeframe you look at it,” Shiver says. “There are not many product categories that can say that during an economic downturn.”

MacKie notes that ABA and other industry groups are constantly reminding government legislators and policymakers about the impact that most pieces of legislation can have not only on businesses, but also on the jobs and economy.

“Now is not the time to be trying out some of these crazier ideas that could significantly harm any potential recovery, as anemic as it has been so far,” MacKie says. “We’re trying to tie the economy back to the consumer on all of these issues.”

That’s the main reason for ABA and its new members to get involved in the political process, Shiver adds.

“It’s a great opportunity to get the message to the right people in Washington so our industry can move ahead like never before,” he says.