ABA outlays COVID-hangover challenges impacting the US bakery sector

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

The US bakery sector - like its peers around the world - are facing a number of post-COVID challenges. Pic: GettyImages
The US bakery sector - like its peers around the world - are facing a number of post-COVID challenges. Pic: GettyImages

Related tags American bakers association coronavirus HGV drivers Soybean Edible oils

The American Bakers Association (ABA) was one of the key industry players to provide testimony to the US House of Representatives Agriculture Committee regarding the challenges the bakery sector now faces, thanks to the COVID pandemic.

Ed Cinco, director of Purchasing for Schwebel Baking Company and the ABA representative to Congress, mapped out the most pressing issues facing the bakery industry today, including the workforce shortage, concerns over the vaccine and testing mandate, and the edible oil supply crisis.

We urgently need more truck drivers

He emphasised the shortage of workers and honed in on the urgent need for more truck drivers – a crisis not relegated to the US, but with tendrils swarming around the world.

In the UK, for example, the shortage of HGV drivers has been driven by a COVID-and-Brexit combo, forcing the country’s government to introduce temporary visas to 5,000 foreign lorry drivers to mitigate concerns about deliveries of food, fuel and other items in the run-up to Christmas.

A similar shortage of truckers has been building for years in the US, but thanks to the pandemic, has now become so severe that companies are trying to bring in drivers from countries like South Africa.

“The baking industry has one of the largest trucking fleets in the US and is reliant upon drivers to transport our products to the end customer,” ​said Cinco.

“Additionally, some ingredient suppliers are hesitant to take on new business for fear of being unable to deliver their product to the manufacturer, forcing bakers to consider other methods of sourcing thus further increasing the prices of ingredients.”

Questionable COVID action plan

Cinco’s testimony to Congress also raised concerns about President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan.

“The baking industry supports the President’s goal of getting Americans vaccinated, but we have real concerns on how such a rulemaking will negatively impact our industry’s fragile workforce,”​ said Cinco.

“The logistics of COVID-19 vaccines, booster shots and testing are challenging and with the ongoing workforce shortage, thoughtful and flexible compliance implementation with a vaccine and testing policy will be critical to keeping our bakeries operational.”

ABA is a member of the US Rapid Action Consortium (RAC), which has a mission to reopen the US economy as quickly as possible through a COVID-19 rapid action testing system, which will enable businesses to create safer workplaces.

Sadly, however, the RAC reported a significant supply chain strain on members’ ability to access COVID-19 rapid tests through these efforts.

Edible oils – the lifeblood of bakery

Cinco also outlined the impact of supply shortages and price hikes on critically important ingredients for the bakery sector like soybean oil and other vegetable oils – again, many the direct result from the global disruption by COVID-19.

Edible oils are a critical component for the bakery sector, with their ability to capture the gases that are released and slowing down gluten formulation to keep baked goods fluffy and tender, to keeping products moist and more shelf stable.

Soybean is a major legume crop with immense economic significance for the country, but its production is highly dependent on optimum rainfall or abundant irrigation. The prolonged drought in July 2020 in the upper Midwest of the country dragged down crop yields, resulting in a domino effect to other industries.

“The 2020 drought, lower than expected projected plantings in 2021 and the EPA’s renewable biodiesel programme all play a large role in the soybean oil supply crisis bakers are experiencing today,”​ he said.

“This means for some food companies, edible oil literally will not be available at any price due to diversion of edible oil from producing food to burning as fuel at the end of this calendar year.”

ABA believes a viable solution could be for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use its statutory authority under the federal EPA Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) programme to consider commodity market and food supply impact when setting the 2021 and 2022 Renewable Volume Obligation (RVO) mandates for biodiesel and renewable diesel. 

“EPA has the authority to set the RVO targets at levels that do not disrupt agricultural markets and our food supply,”​ added Cinco.

‘Reliable and steady production’

In summation, Cinco said, “ABA members want to ensure a continuity for a reliable and steady production and supply of delicious, nutritious, baked goods throughout the country for American families, food service and the USDA’s federal feeding programs to ensure food security for all.”

Lee Sanders, ABA’s SV of Government Relations and Public Affairs, added, “This testimony directly reflects ABA’s aggressive efforts to educate Congressional leaders on the dire impacts of supply chain disruptions for our members.

“We are hopeful this testimony and our ongoing work will provide relief for bakers and other stakeholders on policies that will exacerbate supply chain challenges and the inevitable rise in food prices for consumers.”

The American Bakers Association (ABA) has been the Washington DC-based voice of the wholesale baking industry since 1897. Today, the association works to increase protection from costly government actions, build the talent pool of skilled workers and establish a more receptive environment to grow the baking industry.

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