Branding Tortillas May Put Dollars in Producers’ Pockets

Writer: Kay Ledbetter, (806) 677-5608,skledbetter@ag.tamu.edu
Contact: Dr. Jackie Rudd, (806) 677-5600,jcrudd@ag.tamu.edu

AMARILLO – Texas wheat producers hope to cash in on the saying “it’s good, and it’s good for you” by branding a better tortilla.

Branding flour tortillas made with Texas wheat is an effort that could put more dollars in producers’ pockets and meet consumer needs at the same time, said a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher.

A Greek wrap is one of the newer uses of flour tortillas within the foodservice industry. (Photo courtesy of Texas Wheat Producers Board and the Wheat Foods Council)

Improving wheat quality and products is about more than just tortillas, but tortillas can be a springboard, said Dr. Jackie Rudd, Experiment Station state wheat breeder here.

Tortillas have moved mainstream. The flatbread once considered an Hispanic specialty item now is often substituted for more traditional American breads, reported the Tortilla Industry Association.

Tortillas, and related products including tortilla chips, tostadas and taco shells, comprised the record-breaking $6.1 billion tortilla industry in 2005, according to an association market study.

Developing a whole-wheat tortilla with the texture and taste consumers desire is only one possibility for researchers in Texas, Rudd said.

The Texas Small Grains Advisory Committee, consisting of members from the Experiment Station, Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas Wheat Producers Board and the commercial industry, is looking for ways to promote quality wheat.

The committee’s goal is to have two Centers for Excellence, one in Amarillo and one in College Station, which will focus on improving quality, Rudd said.

Research on wheats aimed at the traditional bread industry is further ahead than that on wheat varieties bred for tortillas and other such products, he said.

“This group recognizes that the ethnic food market is growing rapidly in the United States and that’s where more of our research and marketing efforts need to be concentrated,” Rudd said.

White flour tortillas with fajita meat have been a mainstay of Mexican food restaurants.

There’s a need to create a functional, value-added product that meets consumers’ needs, said Rachel Myers, Texas Wheat Producers Board vice president and director of producer and legislative affairs.

In the near future, Myers said she hopes Texas wheat producers will be able to market wheat with specific attributes, such as enhanced nutrition, extended shelf life or gluten-free properties.

“I believe we must put added focus on the tortilla industry in our state and Latin America, but we should not limit our product selection and research in any way,” she said. “There are thousands of customers with differing needs, and we must be able to meet those needs in order to remain competitive.”

Determining customer needs is the next step, Rudd said. This spring, teams will talk to millers, bakers, tortilla manufacturers and other customers about what it will take to get them to use more Texas wheat, he said.

“What would the value of branding be to them? Would it be valuable to them to sell something with the Texas-certified label?” Rudd said. “We need to know if they can get more for their product and allow some of that added profit to be passed

Whole wheat tortillas are joining white flour tortillas in the marketplace. Researchers are working to make sure it has the taste and texture desired by consumers.

on to the producer.”

Texas annually plants between 6 and 8 million acres of wheat and harvests approximately 80 million to 120 million bushels, said David Worrall, committee member with AgriPro Wheat in Vernon.

Most is hard red winter wheat used primarily for leavened pan bread products, Worrall said.

But tortillas are being used more as a substitute for these bread products, even in the food service industry. According to the Tortilla Foodservice Usage Study conducted by the VNU Foodservice Network Research Service, 62 percent of commercial and non-commercial businesses reported using prepared tortilla products.

Wraps and soft tacos were reported to be the most popular use of flour tortillas. Low-carb, flavored and sandwich wraps top the list of new products recently adopted by foodservice operators.

“We want to do a better job of marketing what we have and capture more value throughout the whole process for the wheat industry,” Rudd said.

“We have such a wide diversity of growing conditions in Texas with varying quality,” he said. “Through quality identification and grain segregation, we want to match specific qualities with specific products or manufacturing processes.

“For example, grain that has quality characteristics for pan bread should be used for that purpose and grain with the best quality for tortilla manufacturing should be used for that,” Rudd said.

About 80 percent of Texas-grown wheat is exported, Rudd said. The idea is to increase the value of this wheat by marketing products both domestically and in foreign markets, rather than dealing in just raw product, he said.

“There’s no reason we can’t export Texas tortillas to Mexico,” Rudd said.

To get there, he said, a quality lab is needed to determine what characteristics best meet the needs of the tortilla industry and this has to be combined with the marketing tool.

Technology also is needed to tag the wheat in the field and allow traceability of that wheat from the testing stage to shipping, allowing the customer to request specific qualities, Rudd said.

Using the Texas Cereal Quality Lab in College Station to research new wheat products and creating a Texas Wheat Commercialization Center to help with future marketing are needed, Rudd said.

To help fund this Texas-branded tortilla product, the committee is applying for grant money from the Emerging Technology Fund set up by Gov. Rick Perry. The program has $200 million designated to promote the use of new technology in Texas, Rudd said.

“The Governor’s Emerging Technology Fund requires that a partnership be developed between research institutions and private industry to generate additional income in Texas within two to three years, due to expanded business, added value or more jobs,” said Dr. Don Robinson, Small Grains Advisory Committee chair.

“Increased income that is shared throughout the wheat industry would be especially beneficial to rural Texans, since wheat is the most widely grown crop in the state and is a major component of rural economies,” Robinson said.

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