Flour output data from new source

by Morton Sosland
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Even though all the details are undecided, it is with well-deserved enthusiasm that the grain-based foods industry has received word that periodic reports on flour production by U.S. mills will once again be compiled and published by a unit of the national government. It was in mid-2011 that the Census Bureau in the U.S. Department of Commerce halted issuance of flour output reports that had their start more than a century earlier. Even as great dismay was expressed in reaction to this budget-saving decision, the North American Millers’ Association happily moved to fill the breach, employing an independent company, Veris Consulting, Inc., to assemble information that for years has been essential to appreciating and understanding the role of wheat flour in the American diet.

Taking over reporting on flour production is the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is already well known to grain-based foods for its responsibility in issuing such varied pieces of information as crop reports, disappearance and stocks estimates and much more that comprises essential information to assure a functioning marketplace. According to NASS officials, funds to conduct the flour production reports, as well as similar undertakings in regard to ethanol production and cotton textiles, have been provided in the agency’s appropriations, along with provisions requiring by law the cooperation of flour mills and others covered by similar output reports.

NASS also has noted that its decision to move to take over the wheat flour output reporting was due in large part to the flood of requests that came from industry members and other users after the Census Bureau dropped its responsibility. Yes, NAMA, the association of millers, has filled that void to the best degree possible, absent the force of law under which the Census and now NASS will act. But these industry-derived statistics, based on voluntary reporting and admittedly not including 4.9% of the industry, had an indefinable aura of uncertainty. Also, the NAMA reports do not include the volume of wheat milled, leaving the determination of this to educated guesses by the U.S.D.A.’s Economic Research Service. Many believe that the wheat grind number is just as important as flour production, and having that included in the NASS reports will be a particularly welcome change.

For the moment, NASS officials say their reports, which are expected to begin covering the first quarter of 2015, will duplicate what had been reported by the Census — production, wheat grind, daily capacity and mill flour stocks, along with rye and durum semolina output and wheat grind. NAMA performed a real service by adding data on whole wheat flour, which reflected the whole wheat role in diet recommendations. Both the government and NAMA assembled flour data on a quarterly basis, which was a switch from monthly reporting. No decisions have yet been made on frequency and possible changes in the data assembled, and it is assumed that these will be among the subjects discussed when NASS officials begin visits to milling company offices as a prelude to publishing reports.

While great thanks are due NAMA for undertaking this data collection at the moment when its future faced doubt, the takeover by NASS stands as an extremely happy event. Hardly any information is more important to measuring the state of grain-based foods than what is revealed by the time series on flour production. As recently noted on this page, the current steadiness and even slight upturn in U.S. flour output portrays grain-based foods, where flour is the major ingredient, as doing better than many other industry sectors. Good data have been described as a precondition to good management, signaling not only the overall progress but helping to identify trends that might hint of adversity. Like all such reporting, the NASS data must be complete, accurate and timely. It is exciting to look forward to analyzing grain-based foods with such data at hand.

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