Many years ago, the Independent Bakers Association (IBA) established an internship on behalf of bakers who made significant contributions to the baking industry. The internship has been sustained by contributions of IBA members and a sizeable contribution from BEMA. Since its founding, the internship has provided an opportunity for members of the baking industry to spend a couple of days in Washington, D.C. in a regulatory climate — meeting with legislators, food industry association members, representatives of private companies based in the nation's capital and visiting the National Press Club. This year, I was offered the internship and gratefully accepted this unique opportunity. The internship immediately preceded IBA's summer meeting, which was held June 18-20.
One of the primary goals of the internship is to give a member of the baking industry a glimpse into IBA's role as it acts on behalf of its members, which include small to mid-sized independent bakers. Aside from leveraging its members' congressional support for or against regulatory action, IBA testifies before committee hearings on Capitol Hill, builds coalitions with like-minded food industry associations and works toward free-market principles. “IBA wants a free market, not command-and-control,” says Nick Pyle, president, IBA.
The sugar program is a prime example of a command-and-control situation, which operates on a system of quotas that not only limits the amount of imported sugar, but also places a limit on crops grown in the United States. As a result, sugar is sold at about $0.23 per lb. in the United States, and about $0.11 elsewhere. In addition, a provision started this year under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), allows unrestricted trade of sugar between Mexico and the United States, raising fears of dumping by Mexico.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, (D-MN), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, sponsored an ethanol provision to the Farm Bill that mandates the use of sugar for ethanol each year in an amount equal to the sugar imports that come in above U.S. food consumption needs. It would require the government to buy excess sugar and then sell it at a loss to ethanol plants. IBA's stance is sugar should be sold on an open market.
Aside from the sugar program, IBA is working on food safety issues, with the government's increased emphasis on the matter; lobbying for a reduction of “giveaways” of heavily subsidized flour; working to develop a coalition to open up Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land; and lobbying the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) against expansion of holdings. These were among the topics I had the opportunity to discuss with legislative personnel from my district in Chicago, including Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) staffer, Congresswoman Janice Schakowski's (D-IL) staffer, a representative from General Mills and various trade associations, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Snack Food Association (SFA) and the North American Milling Federation (NAMF).
I also attended a senate committee hearing entitled “Crisis in the Future: Long Run Deficits and Debt,” where the sole focus was on healthcare costs. Peter Orszag, Ph.D., director, Congressional Budget Office, witness at the hearing, claims 30 percent or about $700 billion per year in healthcare costs do not necessarily improve health outcome or are unnecessary.
Throughout my internship, I learned a great deal about the number of factors that impact the baking industry. Aside from the obvious, such as food safety and commodity-related issues, challenges affecting bakers include healthcare, transportation rules, fuel costs, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the “sin” tax (taxes on snack foods), among others.
“It's important to work with legislators in a constructive way, even if some solutions are not the best,” says Chris Clark, vice president, operations and membership, SFA. “It's still important to have a seat at the table.”
I'm glad I had a chance to sit at the table, even if only for a short time.