Praise for response to flour data vacuum

by Morton Sosland
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Great thanks are owed the North American Millers’ Association for undertaking the assembling of quarterly data on flour production by U.S. mills. NAMA is effectively filling the gap created by the decision of the Obama administration to save money at the Bureau of the Census in the U.S. Department of Commerce by halting industrial output reports that had, in the case of flour milling, been done for almost a century. Without arguing whether this move makes sense in stringent times, practically everyone who used the data agreed that not doing anything would create a terrible vacuum in knowledge about the industry that provides key ingredients for humankind’s most basic foods.

Initially, the focus of NAMA and others affected by this cost-cutting was either to persuade the federal government or Congress that this was wrong-headed. No matter the warnings of the consequences of not having accurate data on output of such an important food, neither branch of government was willing to speak out. This reluctance was not surprising in light of the extraordinary fiscal shortfalls that have become a top worry.

In hearing the concerns of its milling members over the implications of not having reliable information on flour production, NAMA, under the able direction of its president, Mary Waters, moved promptly to assure that this looming disruption did not occur. Hiring an independent survey firm to canvass millers to assemble the data on flour production and milling capacity is the step taken to equal as best possible, if not fully to duplicate, the quarterly production reports that had come from the Census. Two reports have now been issued, initially for the July-September quarter of 2011 and then for the fourth quarter. The data, gathered on a voluntary basis instead of the federal mandate of the Census, seek to provide much of the same information as previously provided by the government. While the Census implied that its data represented total flour output, the NAMA figures cover mills with 95.4 per cent of the industry’s daily capacity. As a result, this magazine, which has published in-depth analyses of these numbers for years, has devised a national production figure by converting 95.4 per cent coverage into 100 per cent.

While the two quarterly reports issued by NAMA now have been done so as to follow the Census pattern, particularly in the way state and state groups are reported, several anomalies have appeared that do not permit full comparison with milling’s historical record derived from Census reports. These discrepancies, which so far are inexplicable, center on extraordinary changes in capacity from the third to fourth quarters, output shifts equally unreal, and questions about national as well as state output related to runs. In the case of the national figure, these show third- and fourth-quarter flour output nearly identical, whereas for some years third-quarter output has been larger. As this process moves forward, it may be hoped that these anomalies will diminish, leaving the NAMA figures as a worthy successor to what the Census supplied.

Nothing is more important about these figures than the guidance they have provided for many years. This extends far beyond measure of area differences to uses in making a case about local property taxes. Still unanswered is how other parts of the federal government, especially the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will use these numbers to update estimates of wheat food use, to determine consumption patterns that have implications for the quality of the American diet, and in times of international turmoil to determine just how much flour may be exported without causing domestic stress. Of value is the way flour production and disappearance estimates help bakers and other food manufacturers understand eating trends. It is no exaggeration to describe quarterly flour output data as an essential statistical tool of the food industry. For taking on this task NAMA is to be not just thanked but congratulated.
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