Whole wheat flour production still growing, albeit at a modest rate

by Josh Sosland
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KANSAS CITY — Whole wheat flour production in 2008-09 totaled 16,517,400 cwts, up 435,700 cwts, or 2.6%, from a revised 16,101,400 cwts in 2007-08.

It was the second consecutive year of sluggish growth following several years of breakneck expansion earlier in the decade. Whole wheat flour production was 15,348,400 cwts in 2006-07; 12,697,100 in 2005-06; and 9,859,000 in 2004-05.

While the 2008-09 growth was off from earlier years, it still contrasted with an overall contraction in total flour production. Output was down just under 0.6%, or 2,553,000 cwts, in 2008 from 2007.

Whole wheat flour production estimates were based on data gathered from 21 milling companies. Revisions from earlier years reflected the inclusion for the first time of whole wheat production of durum milling companies. Participating companies have collective daily flour milling capacity of 1,466,000 cwts, equating to 92% of total U.S. milling capacity, according to the 2009 Grain & Milling Annual published by Milling & Baking News.

Production of whole wheat flour, excluding whole wheat semolina, was15,384,300 cwts in 2008-09, up 425,800 cwts, or 2.8%, from a revised 14,958,500 cwts in 2007-08. The revised figure for 2007-08 compared with 15,100,000 cwts originally reported by milling companies in 2008.

The 2.8% increase in production was down from 3.5% the year before and was a small fraction of the 17% increase in 2005-06 and 29% in 2004-05. The sluggish growth suggested that last year’s flattening was not merely a one-year interruption of a longer-term uptrend.

Production of whole wheat semolina and whole wheat durum flour was 1,133,100 cwts in 2008-09, down 9,800 cwts, or 0.9%, from 1,142,900 cwts in 2007-08. The decline compared with a 27% increase in production in 2007-08 from 2006-07 and a whopping 165% jump in 2006-07 from the year before.

Consistent with the modest overall gain in whole wheat production, nearly as many milling companies milled less whole wheat flour in 2008-09 than the year before as those that produced more, seven versus eight, respectively. Among companies with increased production, five had gains of more than 10%, ranging as high as 49%. For those with lower production than 2007-08, five were down more than 10%, with declines as great as 36%. Measured in hundredweights, the widest year-to-year increase for a single company was 527,836 cwts and the largest decline was 232,228 cwts.

As was the case in 2007-08, millers attributed the slowdown in whole wheat flour production growth in part to economic factors. While a rapid rise in food costs was cited last year as putting the brakes on growth, the poor economy and related food spending cutbacks were said to be have factored into the sluggish growth over the past 12 months.

In the case of whole wheat semolina, one miller said the increasing popularity of multi-grain pasta versus whole wheat pasta resulted in diminished demand for whole wheat semolina.

Production of whole wheat flour in 2008-09 equated to an estimated 4% of total U.S. flour production, a bit higher than the 3.9% in the previous two years and well above 3.4% in 2005-06, 2.7% in 2004-05, 2.4% in 2003-04 and 1.8% in 2002-03.

Whole wheat semolina production in 2008-09 was only slightly behind all whole wheat flour, equating to an estimated 3.7% of all semolina production.

For whole wheat flour ex-whole wheat semolina, the share of the total also rounded to 4% of all flour production.

During 2008-09, a marked shift in whole wheat production by the nation’s largest milling companies was noted. Combined, the six largest milling companies had an increase of 862,128 cwts in whole wheat flour production, or 17%, in 2008-09 from the year before. The remaining milling companies participating in the survey collectively experienced a decrease of 210,206 cwts, or 5%, from the year before. Unlike the aggregate data, these figures were not adjusted for the (less than 10% of) milling companies that did not provide data for this survey.

Even among the largest companies, though, the year-to-year changes varied significantly from an increase as large as 21% at one company to a reduction as large as 11% at another.

Even with the sizable shift in production between smaller and larger millers in 2008-09, the largest six milling companies accounted for nearly an identical share of whole wheat flour production in 2008-09 (69%) as five years earlier (68%).

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, July 28, 2009, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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