When the chief executive of one of the nation’s largest food companies, W. Anthony Vernon of Kraft Foods Inc., cites “a sluggish consumer environment,” as he did in a recent quarterly report, heads are likely to nod agreement across major sectors of the food industry. Mr. Vernon added some specificity to his comments by noting that industrywide consumption has lagged population growth for the past year or longer and that he expects “unit growth to remain below population growth in the near term.” Such an outlook, which may only be called gloomy, differs remarkably from the prospect painted by the annual calculations of wheat flour disappearance by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These data, the issuance of which are eagerly anticipated in grain-based foods, show flour consumption gaining in line with population, contrasting with Mr. Vernon’s perspective on food business.
There is no better measure of the relationship between product consumption and population than per capita calculations. The recent E.R.S. data actually show an increase between 2012 and 2013 as per capita flour disappearance rose to 134.7 pounds from 134.4 the previous year. This publication prefers rounding off these numbers, placing 2013 use at 135 pounds, compared with 134 in 2012 and 133 in 2011. These figures indicate a stark contrast between grain-based foods and the entire food industry.
Of course, the overall flour total varied among industry sectors. Without exact figures, it is probably correct to assume that flour consumption grew enough in variety, specialty and artisan products to offset the slack ruling in sliced white bread. A rebound in food service sectors that emphasize sandwiches is also credited with boosting the performance of flour-based foods. Considering the health-related scares meant to exert a negative influence, this showing might be seen as exceptional.
As tempting at it may be to focus only on the past three years where per capita consumption gained annually, preferred attention should be given to a truly astounding difference from the past — a dozen years when per capita consumption of wheat flour held within a narrow enough range that the measure could be described as holding its own. Beginning in 2002, when per capita dropped 4 pounds to 137, the yearly measure has mostly varied only by 2 pounds and, as noted, ended in 2013 at 135. This is the longest period in history for per capita to display such steadiness. As a reminder, per capita consumption for the first 70 years of the 20th century decreased almost every year, falling to a low of 110 pounds. From that point, an upward move began that continued to near the end of the century, reaching 147 pounds, the recent peak. A brief period of falls occurred around the start of the 21st century followed by steadiness.
Anyone who might be disappointed by recent trends should not only look at how much better flour-based foods is doing than the food industry as a whole but also should look at total consumption. Between 2002 and 2013, flour disappearance gained 32,378,000 hundredweights, or 8 per cent. That rise, propelled by population growth and steady per capita intake, equals a month’s output. With domestic disappearance now comfortably above 400 million, at 426,460,000 hundredweights, grain-based foods has outperformed most of the food industry.
Such an achievement may not be noted without several warnings. If the industry is dependent now on population to maintain and increase demand, it should recognize that these trends are downward. Of course, new immigration rules could have a tremendous impact, as well as new attitudes toward family size. Another warning is the need to confront unwarranted and often quack-like attacks on the quality of foods made with wheat flour. Without a focused effort that succeeds in influencing consumers, the steadiness of per capita consumption in the past dozen years will become only a dream rather than a base for building future growth.