Josh Sosland, PortraitFor many readers of this publication, per capita consumption of flour represents as important a barometer of industry health as any other single metric. A solid uptick in the 2020 figure issued in January belatedly by the US Department of Agriculture offers the grain-based foods industry much to consider.

As reported in this issue, US per capita flour consumption in 2020 was 132.1 lbs, up 1.3 lbs from 130.8 lbs in 2019. The increase was the largest in 10 years but still left per capita flour consumption at the second lowest level since 130 lbs in 1989. Accounting for the increase were nearly identical increases in flour production from 2019 (up 3.5 million cwts) and imports of wheat products (up 3.4 million cwts). A review of the data prompts two questions: What does the increase say about long-term consumption trends, and what should one make of the large increase in flour and product imports in 2020 that helped lift the per capita consumption figure?

It’s a positive any time per capita consumption of flour rises from one year to the next, and year-to-year gains above 1.3 lbs before 2020 have occurred only three times in the current century. But there are many reasons to be cautious rather than declaring a sustainable reversal in what had been a weak trend for many years. The increase was for a single year and, again, leaves the overall figure at the second smallest level in decades. Additionally, the increase occurred during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which included periods of severe but temporary supply dislocations. Skepticism is fueled by data for 2021, showing a drop in flour production and preliminary indications of a drop in flour and wheat product imports from 2020.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the per capita consumption update is the recognition that flour and wheat product imports are no longer a rounding error in this key calculation. Flour and wheat product imports in 2020 hit 19,046,000 cwts, up 3.4 million cwts, or 21%, from the year before. For perspective on the year-to-year increase of 3.4 million cwts in imports, consider that total imports of flour and wheat products never hit a total of 3 million cwts until 1989. For most of the last 100 years, it was flour exports that needed to be watched carefully in flour supply/demand analysis. Exports hit a record of 97 million cwts just after World War II and a recent high of 37 million cwts in 1983. Current figures are a mere shadow of those levels. Flour and flour product exports have fallen short of 10 million cwts in 9 of the last 10 years. The 2020 import figure of 19,046,000 cwts was more than double exports, which were only 8,924,000 cwts.

So, what prompted the 2020 jump in imports? Data from the Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture show flour accounted for relatively little — about 15% — of the 3.4 million cwt import increase. Flour imports in 2020 rose to 7.5 million cwts, up 487,000 cwts from 2019. Imports of wheat products, which include pasta, couscous and bulgur, were 11.7 million cwts, up 2.9 million cwts, or 33%, from a year earlier. Imports of wheat products from Italy, principally pasta, accounted for more than half the increase. A review of global data suggests the remainder of the imports came from a variety of sources from around the world, including 460,000 cwts from the Middle East and 265,000 cwts from Mexico.

While full-year import data for 2021 are not yet available, imports of flour products in the first 11 months of the year were down about 19% from the same period in 2020. Imports were still solidly above 2019 levels. Imports of wheat products from Italy were down 21%, but also were on track to eclipse 2019 levels. Carefully reckoning import trends will be crucial going forward for grain-based foods executives to accurately track overall US consumption patterns.