Editorial: Heady array of good news on flour disappearance

by Morton Sosland
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Even though it is likely that revisions in prior data will moderate the jump in flour consumption in the United States in 2007, hardly anything could diminish the pleasure for grain-based foods provided by these compilations. According to estimates just released by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, per capita flour use through the 2007 calendar year recovered at least 3 pounds of its previous disturbing loss and total flour disappearance, which had appeared to be stagnant for five years or longer, resumed its upward course, bringing the aggregate for 2007 to a record. Considering the gloom, if not dismay, that had characterized the industry’s reaction to prior annual estimates, the 2007 data mark a singular victory in proving once again that consumers like and appreciate foods made from wheat flour, and that an upward pattern may be achieved in the face of the horrific interruption attributed to low-carbohydrate dieting.

The E.R.S. data reflect the annual Bureau of the Census estimates of flour production. It is here that upward revisions are believed in prospect for output in 2006 and perhaps earlier. This increase means that the 2007 rise in domestic disappearance was probably less than the amazing climb of 13,141,000 hundredweights indicated by the E.R.S. Similarly, the rise in per capita use in 2007 over 2006 was also probably smaller. Even before the likelihood of the output revision for 2006 was known, industry executives had questioned whether the single year gain in 2007 could have been as large as the first figures indicated.

No matter how much smaller the 2007 increases may be, the ending disappearance estimates are said to be correct. It is here that the grain-based foods industry derives maximum satisfaction. Per capita use in 2007 reached 137.5 pounds, which is a substantial recovery from the recent low of 134.2 in 2005. No one in the industry may forget how per capita disappearance plunged from its recent peak of 146 pounds in 2000 to that nadir five years later. This was a precipitous fall striking at the heart of the industry’s hopes for expanding demand. As per capita shrunk in response to usage holding and population expanding, serious questions were raised about the future and the need to undertake actions to reverse a downward trend that was beginning to erase the elation that characterized the previous several decades.

When it comes to total disappearance, the 2007 estimate, 415,462,000 hundredweights, stands as a record. This is the amount remaining after imports of flour and flour-containing products are added to output to arrive at the total wheat flour supply and exports of flour and flour products are deducted to leave net domestic disappearance. It was in 1997 that total use first exceeded 400 million hundredweights, and from that point, the aggregate seemed to be almost nearly locked near this number. That was definitely the case in the first five years of the 21st century. Breaking loose from that rate represents an impressive accomplishment, leading to hope that the upward course ruling in the late 20th century will resume.

Several aspects of these happy numbers need to be kept in mind. One is the E.R.S. estimate that at least a third of the annual flour disappearance is not consumed as food. Of similar importance is the difficulty in ascribing the upward break-out to specific products or industry sectors. There is every reason, save the lack of such data, for crediting a large part of this gain to the success of the Grain Foods Foundation in reigniting consumer satisfaction in the wake of the dieting disaster that marked the start of this century. At its current level, total disappearance is up slightly from the 21st century’s beginning. Achieving gains anywhere near the prior two decades will require an all-out effort by the industry in order to recapture consumer enthusiasm for flour-based foods.

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