Path to improving flour output data

by Morton I. Sosland
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While it might be a stretch to cite a single statistic as being more important than any other in measuring the well being of an industry like wheat milling, or even grain processing, the significance of wheat flour production data for this purpose may hardly be overstated. The wheat flour output number for many nations provides as good, if not better, gauge of the diet level of its citizens as any other. For milling and related industries, flour output figures have the essential role of providing a detailed picture of the actual performance of the industry, as well as revealing details about the domestic food supply, the well-being of farmers, and, of course, standing as the guidepost for individual enterprises to determine how they are doing in relation to the national number.

For the global audience focused on wheat milling as the business that operates in all countries of size and in many smaller nations where it stands at the head of food manufacturing, the best source is the annual compilation provided by the International Grains Council (IGC). Almost from the Council’s start in the immediate post-World War II years, it has assembled national flour production statistics. With this data, information is provided about wheat supply and demand in countries where it had never been known before. Using export and import data, domestic supply calculations are possible that could be converted into per capita flour consumption as perhaps the most reliable way of measuring the caloric and nutritional adequacy of each country’s food supply.

For a time, the IGC, known as the International Wheat Council in its early years, was bold enough and confident enough in its information gathering to come up with a figure representing worldwide flour production. Here was a number that not only described by its annual changes the status of this most basic food industry, but also revealed how individual nations were doing compared with other countries and regions of the world. Alas, estimating those global numbers came to a halt in recent decades when nations that once provided flour output data stopped doing that, in part for political battling, in part for economic secrecy and in part inexplicably. It seems almost impossible to explain why countries like Australia, Norway and the Philippines have missing figures. China’s and Iran’s reasons for making flour output a secret are less a problem.

At one time concern might have ruled that the United States was not going to produce numbers that meet IGC standards. Suddenly, in 2011, the Commerce Department agency that had compiled flour output data from U.S. mills stopped doing this for budgetary reasons. To meet the urgent needs of milling companies for data against which individual company performance could be assessed, the organization of American millers, the North American Millers’ Association (NAMA), stepped up and hired a data company to do the work. NAMA has carried out this project by gathering data voluntarily. The NAMA figures deserve great praise for filling an information gap that might have caused many severe problems.

Yet, even with the association’s quarterly reports, a level of unease has ruled about data without the government’s imprimatur. For that reason, enthusiasm greeted the decision announced this summer by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) that it would assemble flour output reports beginning in 2015. Further, the ERS will duplicate the former government reports to provide information on wheat grind, millfeed production and related data missing from NAMA compilations.

Hardly anything could symbolize with greater meaning the importance of flour production data than this U.S. government action. It does not seem unrealistic to hope that this step spurs those countries that either don’t compile the information or have elected to keep their flour output a secret to join the nations that proudly cite this statistic as evidence of their commitment to providing invaluable information for their citizens as well as for the world.