Christine Cochran, G.F.F.
Christine Cochran, executive director of the G.F.F.

WASHINGTON — Broad outlines of a potential checkoff program for the flour-based foods industry took shape this week with the inaugural meeting of a Grain Foods Foundation steering committee responsible for assessing, developing and potentially launching such a program.

Christine Cochran, executive director of the G.F.F., called the meeting a success and described a sense of urgency among the group of milling and baking executives to take steps to reverse declining trends in grain-based foods consumption.

“There was real momentum to build a commitment toward a checkoff,” she said. “Many details are still up for consideration, but there was consensus that we should pursue a program. These folks are ready to move. If we could launch tomorrow, they would be happy.”

Notwithstanding this enthusiasm, numerous steps remain to be completed and decisions to be made before a launch will be possible, Ms. Cochran said. Representatives of Statler Nagle, a group engaged to help the G.F.F. assess its plans, suggested comprehensive recommendations for the program may be possible by early spring. Afterward, formal plans will be drafted and refined in consultation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture proceeding through the spring and subjected to industry approval. A launch could be possible later in the year.

Christine Cochran, G.F.F. pull quote

The steering committee meeting featured in-depth looks into current grain-based foods demand. The research conducted to date has focused principally on consumption of bread at home, as well as a set of related “breadbasket” products consumed at home and away from home. These include English muffins, pita, bagels, artisan bread, naan and others.

For instance, NPD Group data were shared showing the percentage of meals that include sliced bread or toast (alone, not in sandwiches) declined to 3.6% in 2017 from 7.5% in 1984. Sandwiches declined as well, but not as steeply — to 10.8% of meals in 2017 from a peak of 12.6% in 1990.

The data suggested that the increasing popularity of tacos and other Mexican foods accounted for a significant part of the decline in bread consumption at in-home meals. Gluten avoidance was a fairly small part.

The researchers found positive trends as well. For instance, breakfast sandwich consumption has been a source of growth, rising 26% between 2013 and 2017, to 11.5 sandwiches per capita annually at home. Away-from-home breakfast sandwich consumption rose to 13.1 per year, up 15%.

Breakfast sandwich
Breakfast sandwiches have been a source of growth, rising 26% between 2013 and 2017.

A grain foods consumption motivation study was presented by Artemis Strategy Group, a Washington-based marketing research firm. The group in mid-November conducted an online survey of 34,100 meal influencers.

Respondents were queried about bread and a wide range of baked foods. They were asked to judge whether the inclusion of bread in a meal made the occasion special or at least better; 69% answered in the affirmative.

The group’s analysis assessed the values that ultimately translate into eating decisions, including rational attributes that describe the meal, functional benefits that come from the meal, emotional consequences that result from eating or serving the meal to personal values, representing the consumer’s objectives.

Respondents were asked to offer different physical attributes of the food (e.g., simple, convenient), physical benefits (e.g., saves time for other things, gets the job done), emotional benefits (e.g., relieved, relaxed) and personal values (e.g., made me happy to consume it or helped me relax in the moment) associated with a grain food.

Bagel and granola bar
Bagels and granola bars scored well for delivering satiety.

Products that scored well toward different attributes included bagels and granola bars for delivering satiety; rolls, unsliced loaf bread, flour tortillas and pizza for popularity; and unsliced loaf bread, English muffins, crackers and pizza as more rewarding, i.e., satisfying a craving.

The most intensive discussions in the steering committee meeting revolved around a deep look at return-on-investment analysis of a potential checkoff program. A principal focus was on which grain-based categories would be included in which parts of the checkoff. Certain categories may participate in protection facets of the checkoff, including education, research and rapid response efforts, but would not be included in the more costly product promotion parts.

The group looked at three categories:

  • Bread and related (baked from hard red winter and hard red spring flour)
  • Pasta (durum wheat)
  • Sweet goods (soft wheats)

Statler Nagle concluded that such a breakdown would simplify the operations of the program and how costs are assessed. Proposals indicated that both millers and bakers would be assessed as part of the checkoff, though the breakdowns remained to be finalized.

Statler Nagle noted that flour production data already is gathered by the U.S.D.A., which could make accuracy and compliance audits more easily achievable.

The return-on-investment modeling presented to the steering committee by Statler Nagle was generated with data provided by numerous flour milling companies on a confidential basis. Baseline factors built into the model include a 1%-per-year decline in per capita consumption over the last three years without a program. Going forward the objectives for a program would be to recover lost volume within five years while protecting financial results of millers and bakers.

Numerous scenarios for the program were considered, including three that excluded different classes of wheat from the program completely (both protection and promotion). While no final decisions have been made, there was some sense that protection elements would span much of the grain-based foods industry while the promotion program could be more focused toward bread, rolls and related products ranging from English muffins to tortillas.

Potential budgets for the program considered varied widely as well.

By the end of March, Statler Nagle will be prepared to offer a comprehensive recommendation to include:

  • Funding and assessment levels
  • Participation by stakeholder group
  • Key decisions necessary for the checkoff application
  • Program architecture/resource allocation
  • Return-on-investment model and measurement plan

Ms. Cochran was optimistic about prospects while recognizing the scope of such a program is unprecedented for the grain-based foods industry.

“This is a big undertaking,” she said. “The millers and bakers feel it is very important. They’ve seen positive work from other checkoffs. There is a sense we need to get this focused and we’ve got to get this right.”