Key Accomplishments, FY 2014

USDA Priority Goal 1: Assist rural communities to create prosperity so they are self-sustaining, repopulating, and economically thriving

Key Outcome:

Enhanced understanding by policy makers, regulators, program managers, and those shaping public debate of economic issues affecting rural development, rural well-being, farm and household income, and rural communities.

Key Accomplishments:

Rural employment loss and recovery during and after the Great Recession varied widely across rural counties. Since December 2007, 82 percent of U.S. counties experienced job losses, but some places were hit much harder than others, and some have recov­ered more rapidly. ERS research found that counties’ ability to weather the downturn depended in part on differences in the mix of industries that support the local economy, in population growth trends, and in the demographics of the local workforce. While rural America as a whole had a favorable industry mix relative to urban areas—more farming, mining, and other extractive industries that did relatively well, for instance—it also has an older and less-educated workforce that was a drag on employment growth. The most rural counties experienced the smallest job loss. The report was used soon after publication to brief senior USDA officials on labor market participation.

While production more than doubled from 2000 to 2010 in three emerging energy industries—shale gas, wind power, and corn-based ethanol—employment effects in the local and regional economies varied, with the greatest impact from gas production. ERS researchers found that counties experiencing the shale gas boom had an average of 12 percent more rapid growth in employment and 21 percent more rapid growth in wage and salary income from 1999 to 2007 than comparable non-boom counties. The growth in employment from natural gas development in the boom counties accounted for more than 55 percent of total employment growth in these counties during this period. The employment and income impacts of wind energy development were smaller but still substantial. Employment effects from ethanol are positive, though concentrated in sectors closely related to its production. Findings were published in an ERS report and several scholarly journals.

While farm business debt rose from 1992 to 2011, the average farm debt-to-asset ratio declined over the period, as did the share of highly leverage farm businesses. The potential for future rising interest rates and lower farm income have prompted concerns about current trends in the use of debt by farm businesses. ERS research found that farm business debt rose by nearly 40 percent since the early 1990s, but has been relatively stable relative to asset values. Higher debt use is most closely associated with large-scale family farms, specialization in dairy and poultry production, and younger operators. Operators age 34 or younger were the only group not to experience a decline in financial leverage during 1992-2011. Farmland purchases and ownership may play an important role in these trends. The research results were widely cited in the press and provided a timely assessment of the recent increase in farm debt and the potential vulnerability of farm businesses to a drop in farm income and higher interest rates.

ERS farm income indicators and forecasts measure the financial performance of the U.S. farm sector. ERS has a prominent role in monitoring the financial health of the farm sector including the performance of farm businesses and well-being of farm households. Published three times a year, these core statistical indicators provide guidance to policy makers, lenders, commodity organizations, farmers, and others interested in the financial status of the farm economy. ERS’ farm income statistics also inform the computation of agriculture’s contribution to the gross domestic product for the U.S. economy.

Rural wealth creation offers a way to achieve sustainable economic growth through a variety of development strategies based on community and regional assets. The wealth, or assets, of rural communities and regions come in many forms of capital—physical, financial, human, natural, social, and others. ERS researchers co-edited and coauthored the first major book on rural wealth creation, which considers how multiple forms of wealth provide opportunities for rural development, and how development strategies affect the dynamics of wealth. Case studies demonstrate how wealth can be measured and how wealth-based strategies can effect rural community growth. Copies of the book were widely distributed at the White House Rural Council Conference on Rural Opportunities Investment and a briefing given to senior policy officials.

ERS published multiple products providing highlights and economic implications of the new programs and provisions of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill). Within a month of the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill ERS published on its website “Agricultural Act of 2014: Highlights and Implications.” The webpage provided an overview of the major provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill, along with ERS research findings and data that illustrated some of the potential economic implications of these provisions. ERS also published several articles in the Agency’s magazine Amber Waves that provide an economic perspective on conservation, nutrition, and crop commodity aspects of the 2014 Farm Bill. Since the webpage was posted in February 2014 it has generated over 38,000 page views, was featured in a link from the USDA Farm Bill web page, and received numerous citations from the media.

About half of total cropland is now planted to genetically engineered (GE) corn, cotton, and soybeans. The adoption of insecticide-resistant (Bt) seeds has led to higher yields and net returns, while outcomes for adoption of herbicide-tolerant (HT) varieties are more mixed. GE varieties with pest management traits first became commercially available in 1996, and now comprise the majority of corn, soybean, and cotton plantings. An ERS report finds that Bt crop adoption increases yields by mitigating losses from insects, is associated with higher net returns when pest pressure is high, and reduces the use of insecticide. HT crop adoption is also likely to increase yields in some circumstances, but has also contributed to an overreliance on glyphosate and increased resistance. Consumer acceptance of foods with GE ingredients varies with product characteristics, geography, and the information that consumers are exposed to. After release of this report, in February, 2014, the authors gave three briefings to USDA policymakers. Over 6,000 copies of the report were downloaded.

Discrepancies or “non-convergence” between futures and cash prices in wheat, corn, and soybean markets in the mid-to-late 2000s were primarily associated with contract design and market conditions rather than financial speculation. Convergence between futures and cash prices is important for risk management, price discovery, and inventory allocation, so market participants and policymakers grew concerned when in 2005, futures contracts for wheat, corn, and soybeans began exhibiting growing non-convergence between expiring futures and cash prices. ERS research found that modifications made by the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) and Kansas City Board of Trade (KCBT) between 2008 and 2011 contributed to an improved convergence between expiring futures and cash prices. ERS research also found that wheat price volatility from 1991-2011 was mainly due to fundamental supply and demand factors rather than financial speculators. ERS estimated that the peak wheat price in February 2008 would have been only 1 percent lower in the absence of market shocks attributable to speculators like commodity index traders (CITs), and even at its maximum price impact between 2006 and 2011, financial speculation increased wheat prices by only 5 – 8 percent at the same time that per-bushel wheat prices increased by 300 percent on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. The findings contributed to a briefing of senior officials and helped inform the debate on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

ERS provided new information on pollinator markets. ERS provided a report to Congress that responded to a request to examine pollinator markets and the economic importance of pollinators. An ERS commodity outlook report provided economic insights on the U.S. pollinator services market and included an updated pollinator route map. To identify research gaps and lay the foundation for future economic research on pollinators, ERS, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the University of Illinois jointly held a workshop on the economics of pollinator health as a side event to the annual meeting of agricultural economists. Approximately 50 participants, including members of the bee industry, discussed current research and needs for additional data and research. The published research and workshop provided input for both the USDA/EPA Honey Bee Health Action Plan and the Federal Pollinator Research Action Plan.

Data from the 2010 Agricultural Management Resource Survey (ARMS) show considerable variation in corn yields, cropping practices, costs, and returns. Corn is a major U.S. crop, accounting for about 40 percent of the world’s corn production and 50 percent of the world’s corn exports in the 2010/11 marketing year. A significant rise in corn prices boosted corn returns and created an incentive to increase corn acres by 12.5 million between 2001 and 2010. The increase in returns and planted acres may have changed the pattern of the returns among different groups of corn producers, potentially impacting competitiveness. ERS research found that the Heartland continues to be the major corn production region with the lowest operating and ownership costs per bushel, due mainly to the region’s high corn yields. The operating and ownership costs per bushel did not vary significantly by the number of planted corn acres per farm. This ERS study also examined returns to organic corn production. Production value less operating and ownership costs per acre from organic corn production was higher than that from conventional corn production because higher organic corn prices more than offset their lower yields.

Risk management programs that lock in a fixed margin between dairy prices and feed costs show the potential to reduce downside risks for dairy producers. ERS research finds that Livestock Gross Margin - Dairy (LGM-Dairy) insurance, established in 2008, had the potential to reduce economic risk faced by dairy producers in 12 States and regions by 28 to 39 percent, had the program been in effect throughout the 2002-2010 period. The research also established that while the program reduced risks for dairy producers, its existence would have had relatively limited impacts on actual margins. Based on reduced risk alone, the program was estimated to have the potential to encourage increased milk production in the range of 0 to 3 percent. Because the similarity of some provisions of LGM-Dairy to the dairy Margin Protection Program established in the 2014 Farm Bill, the findings of this research were presented in briefings for senior USDA officials.

ERS provided a new breakout of dairy industry commercial sales. For the first time, ERS has published new data on domestic commercial sales and commercial export sales for U.S. dairy products on a “milk-equivalent basis.” Historically, U.S. dairy product exports have been relatively insignificant and the U.S. was a net importer of dairy products. Since 2004, however, U.S. dairy product exports have increased in value from $1.4 billion to $6.7 billion in 2013, and the U.S. is a significant net exporter. In response to these changes, ERS developed a new data series reporting both domestic commercial and commercial export sales, which had previously been combined as one category. With the release of the new data, ERS now has a historically consistent estimate of monthly U.S. commercial export sales on a milk-equivalent basis going back to 1995. The data show that exports account for 18.7 percent of total commercial disappearance (sales), up from 3.4 percent in 1995. The release of the improved dairy data was well received by USDA decisionmakers, the industry, and academic researchers.

ERS analysis on the costs incurred by farmers prior to planting helps the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) establish prevented planting insurance premiums and indemnities. ERS research on the costs of preparing fields for crop production prior to the planting period was made available to the Risk Management Agency for their evaluation of the premium and indemnity structure of their prevented planting insurance programs. ERS researchers used data from the jointly administered ERS/NASS Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) to estimate preplanting costs for major row crops. By creating special tabulations of the ARMS data and providing additional analysis, ERS was able to inform RMA decisions on future prevented planting insurance provisions for commodities accounting for roughly 60% of all such indemnities. Crop insurance is now the leading source of government support to farmers and decisions on the level and structure of insurance premiums and indemnities has substantial budgetary implications.

ERS conducted a comprehensive study on the scope of, and trends in, local and regional foods. The congressionally-mandated study examined the development of the local and regional foods subsector, including the economics of production and its implications for economic development.

 

USDA Priority Goal 2: Ensure our national forests and private working lands are conserved, restored, and made more resilient to climate change, while enhancing our water resources.

Key Outcome:

Enhanced understanding by policy makers, regulators, program managers, and those shaping public debate of economic issues related to developing Federal farm, natural resource, and rural policies and programs that respond to the challenges of climate change and the need to protect and maintain the environment while improving agricultural competitiveness and economic growth.

Key Accomplishments:

Consumer and producer welfare will be reduced over the next several decades if temperatures rise as suggested by several climate change scenarios. In many parts of the United States, climate change is likely to result in higher average tempera­tures, hotter daily maximums, and more frequent heat waves, which could increase heat stress for livestock that lowers reproduction rates and milk production. Mitigation strategies are likely to increase production and capital costs. An ERS report that is the first to try to quantify these costs for the U.S. dairy industry finds that under a reasonable range of climate change scenarios, nearly all U.S. dairies will see some production loss, and States will experience production losses ranging up to more than four percent, with losses concentrated in the South. Both consumers and producer welfare will fall as a result of higher milk prices and production costs. In addition to the report, the research was published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, which led to a request to provide a May presentation to dairy extension and policy specialists at the 21st annual National Workshop for Dairy Economists and Policy Analysts. The findings have also been widely reported in the industry press.

Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and by several possible climate change scenarios suggest increasingly negative impacts on most crop and livestock production in the U.S. by mid-century. ERS was a lead contributor to the Third National Climate Assessment Report, released in May 2014, to provide reliable scientific information about current and future changes, impacts, and effective response options under climate change. ERS researchers served as lead authors on the Agriculture and Rural Communities chapters and as expert contributors and reviewers on other chapters. Findings in the report suggest that the impact of climate change on production will have consequences for food security, both in the U.S. and globally, through changes in crop yields and food prices and effects on food processing, storage, transportation, and retailing. The report also highlights factors that require additional focus in the literature, including extreme events and temperature thresholds in production, as well as the potential for loss and degradation of critical agricultural soil and water assets due to increasing extremes in precipitation. The Report received widespread attention in national and international media.

Conservation payments can encourage farming practices that improve environmental quality, but their efficacy varies by type of practice and program design. When voluntary conservation payments cause a change in farming practice and improved environmental quality, these changes are “additional.” An ERS study measured additionality for a number of common conservation practices and found that additionality depends largely on the characteristics of the practices support by conser­vation payments. Practices that are expensive to install or provide only limited onfarm benefits (such as structural and vegetative practices) are unlikely to be adopted without payments, unlike more profitable conservation management practices. While complete additionality cannot be ensured, it may be possible to design programs to increase it by putting higher priority on practices that are less likely to be undertaken without payment support. If those practices are also more costly or produce less environmental benefit (when they are additional), greater additionality may not be cost effective. This research was included in a briefing to policy officials.

The cost of achieving water quality goals under EPA’s 2010 Total Maximum Daily Load limits for the Chesapeake Bay depends heavily on which policy choices are selected and how they are implemented. ERS research assessed four different types of policy instruments for reducing nutrient emissions from agriculture and achieving the target limits. Performance-based policies, such as setting emissions limits, emerge as the lowest cost policy optimal, but depend on information that is difficult to obtain. Design-based policies that either require nutrient management practices or encourage them through financial incentives may be easier to implement, but also tend to be more costly than performance-based policies. The impact of animal agriculture on nutrient loadings in the Bay could be reduced by increasing the use of manure as fertilizer by crop producers or by using manure as an energy source. The latter would have a net negative cost effect on agriculture relative to using manure as a source of crop nutrients, but would provide a local source of energy production. Findings from the report were presented through briefings to EPA, the Chesapeake Bay Program Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), NRCS State Conservationists, and the Office of the Chief Economist. 

Implementation of the Evidence and Innovation Agenda is moving forward as interagency research teams cooperate to develop experiments to test existing and new approaches to program delivery. These research projects address concerns and priorities identified by USDA program managers by fostering strong partnerships and joint research development. In addition to collaborations with USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and NRCS, ERS has funded a new Center to conduct behavioral and experimental economics research related to agro-environmental issues. The projects originating from this Center will help USDA improve existing programs and assist in the design of new programs to improve outcomes, cost-efficiency and social welfare. The Center also includes a dissemination focus to ensure research results will be delivered to a diverse stakeholder audience, including USDA and other Federal program agencies, other researchers and the general public.

Pesticide use—including the use of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides—tripled from 1960 to 1981, but has since trended downward to 516 million pounds in 2008. Pesticides contribute increased yields and improved product quality while reducing the need for various production inputs. Their toxic properties, however, have raised concerns about their impact on human health and the environment. An ERS report showed that increased pesticide use from 1960 to the early 1980s was driven primarily by greater herbicide use due to their falling relative price, as well as greater total planted acreage. Pesticide use since then has fluctuated along with total acres in the 21 crops studied. Insecticide use during the 1960-2008 period dropped from 58 percent to 6 percent of all pesticide use, while fungicide use fell slightly from 13 to 7 percent. Corn has been the top pesticide-using crop in the U.S. since 1972, accounting for about 39 percent of total use in 2008. The report generated more than 2,000 page views after its May release, and the authors provided a briefing to USDA’s Office of Pest Management Policy.

 

USDA Priority Goal 3: Help America promote agricultural production and biotechnology exports as America works to increase food security.

Key Outcome:

Enhanced understanding by policy makers, regulators, program managers, and organizations shaping public debate of economic issues related to adoption of economically and environmentally sustainable technologies and factors affecting trade of U.S. agricultural products (including biotech products), and strategies to increase markets for U.S. products, including biotech crop exports.

Key Accomplishments:

World population and income increases will drive future demand for agriculture, but impacts on prices and land use depend largely on the rate of agricultural productivity growth. Recent volatility in agricultural commodity prices, coupled with projections of world population and income growth, raise concerns about the ability of global agricultural production to meet future demand. Meanwhile the prospects for continued robust agricultural productivity growth to meet this demand are uncertain, especially in light of climate change. ERS research examined the economic and agricultural effects of potential changes in agricultural productivity, population, and per capita income by 2050. Expected moderate growth in population and income will cause consumption to rise, but increased prices, along with input and land use, would be moderated substantially if current productivity growth continues. Under a scenario of reduced productivity growth, however, prices and resource use rise notably faster.

Although ERS analysis finds that the net returns for organic crops may exceed those from conventionally grown crops such as corn, organic production has not kept pace with demand. The growth in U.S. organic sales has outpaced organic domestic production since the early 2000’s. Nonetheless growth slowed in 2008 and has not recovered to earlier levels. Organic imports for some crops have grown to fill the gap between sales and production. The adoption of organic systems varies by commodity sector, with more acres in grains and oilseeds and a higher percent of acres in high-value specialty crops. This suggests challenges beside profitability may influence growers’ decision to transition to an organic production system. Briefings have been given to the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics (NAREEE) Advisory Board as well as invited talks at interdisciplinary conferences. The organic webpages on the ERS website had over 56,000 page views with over 150 follow-up requests from investment bankers, government agencies, the Organic Trade Association, Iowa Public TV, academic researchers, and journalists.

Food security is projected to improve for most developing countries. ERS publishes the International Food Security Assessment to inform U.S. policymakers as well as international donor organizations of the food security situation in 76 low- and middle-income countries. The report provides projections of food availability and access—including food gaps and the number of food-insecure people. The findings indicate that food security is projected to improve in the Latin American and Caribbean region while the North African and Asian regions are forecast to be relatively food secure. With the exception of a few countries, Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to continue on the recent path of improving food security or maintaining relatively high levels of food security. Additional analysis found that increasing adoption of modern crop varieties in Sub-Saharan Africa could cut the number of food-insecure people by 40 percent. The findings informed decisions on funding for U.S. assistance programs by USDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

ERS finds that new policies in India improved domestic food security but did not shelter poor residents from all market shocks in the late 2000s. India is a rapidly growing developing country, but at the same time, has a larger food-insecure population than all of sub-Saharan Africa. In response to the prevalence of chronic malnutrition, the country recently expanded its domestic food assistance programthe Public Distribution System (PDS)—which sells rice, wheat, sugar, and kerosene to poor households at highly subsidized rates. The PDS has been criticized as being highly inefficient, but some states have shown dramatic improvements in the distribution of PDS commodities. ERS analyzed one state identified as a model of PDS reform (Chhattisgarh) to assess the differential impacts of its reforms during a period of sudden economic duress in the late 2000s when commodity prices spiked, and found no difference in the degree of food security across states. The research findings suggest the need for further improvements in the PDS at both the national and State levels.

USDA Agricultural Projections to 2023 suggest long run increases in global consumption, world trade, and agricultural commodity prices. Each year ERS coordinates the Department's Baseline projections for U.S. and world agriculture for the coming decade. The 2014 projections indicate that global agricultural production of most major crops remains high in the near term as producers around the world respond to the high farm commodity prices seen in recent years. Following those near-term adjustments, longrun developments for global agriculture reflect steady world economic growth and continued global demand for biofuels. Implications for the U.S. agricultural sector show that following near-term reductions, farm cash receipts and the value of U.S. agricultural exports grow beyond 2016 and net farm income remains historically high. The projections in this report helped shape USDA’s submission for the President’s FY 2015 Budget, and supported the Farm Service Agency’s estimation of budget costs for farm program commodities. They also provide the reference point for assessing effects of the Agricultural Act of 2014 on farmers, ranchers, and the farm sector. In addition to its importance for USDA’s policymakers, the annual Baseline projections report and related data products are essential references for public and private decision makers, receiving over 100,000 page views annually on the ERS website.

A proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could spur growth in U.S. agricultural exports in Asia-Pacific markets, including a diverse array of US agricultural exports to Japan and Vietnam. ERS analysis assesses the potential impacts of eliminating all border restrictions on agricultural and nonagricultural goods in a hypothetical agreement among all 12 member countries, and estimates that by 2025 the value of intraregional agricultural trade would increase by 6 percent, or by about $8.5 billion per year (in 2007 U.S. dollars). The United States and Japan would account for the largest shares of the increases in intraregional exports and imports, respectively. The percentage increases in the value of intraregional trade due to eliminating tariffs and other border restrictions among all TPP members will be largest for rice, sugar, and “other meat” (which includes animal fats and oils and offals). ERS projects that Japan, with its vast import market, could import more rice, beef, and dairy products from the United States and other TPP countries under an agreement without significantly reducing their domestic production. Although Vietnam is a smaller market than Japan, ERS finds that it has strong growth potential, with projected gains for U.S. exports of meats, dairy products, fruits, and high-valued consumer food products rather than bulk commodities where trade barriers are already low. These findings were reported in briefings to senior officials in the Office of the Chief Economist and Foreign Agricultural Service, and reported in USDA radio news.

China’s average corn yield is roughly 40 percent less than the U.S. average. Chinese yields are rising, but not closing the gap with U.S. yields. China’s dramatic expansion of domestic corn output came mainly by expanding acreage, a strategy that is not sustainable as corn competes for land with urbanization and production of other crops. Thus, China’s consumption of corn is likely to outpace production if it is limited to yield growth of 1-to-2 percent annually. The findings were used to improve USDA baseline projections, and were presented to the U.S. Grains Council and other industry groups to help assess future growth in China’s demand for corn imports.

 

USDA Priority Goal 4: Ensure that all of America's children have access to safe, nutritious, and balanced meals.

Key Outcome:

Enhanced understanding by policy makers, regulators, program managers, and those shaping public debate of economic issues related to improving the efficiency, efficacy, and equity of public policies and programs relating to the food prices and availability at home and abroad, consumer food choices, nutrition and health outcomes, nutrition assistance programs, and protecting consumers from unsafe food.

Key Accomplishments:

An estimated 85.7 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2013, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14.3 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.6 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year—because the household lacked money and other resources for food. Additional research focused specifically on children shows that an estimated 90.1 percent of households with children were food secure throughout the year in 2011, meaning that all the household members had consistent access to adequate food for active, healthy lives. The ERS food security statistics are widely recognized as the benchmark for measuring food security in the U.S., and support decision making on USDA food assistance and nutrition programs.

An estimated 1,249 Calories per capita per day are lost from the food supply. ERS published the latest estimates on the amount and value of food loss in the United States. These estimates are for more than 200 individual foods using ERS’ Loss-Adjusted Food Availability data. In 2010, an estimated 31 percent, or 133 billion pounds, of the 430 billion pounds of food produced was not available for human consumption at the retail and consumer levels. This amount of loss totaled an estimated $161.6 billion, as purchased at retail prices. For the first time, ERS estimates of the calories associated with food loss are presented in this report. The top three food groups in terms of the share of the total value of food loss at the retail and consumer levels are meat, poultry, and fish (30 percent), vegetables (19 percent), and dairy products (17 percent). Food loss data from ERS is used to support USDA’s Food Waste Challenge initiative and also provides a model for other countries efforts to estimate food loss.

Consumption of food-away-from-home (FAFH) in terms of total daily calories, share of daily calories, and the number of restaurant meals declined during the 2007-09 recession. ERS research explored how food intake evolved between 2005 and 2010. ERS compared a number of measures of food intake and diet quality over a pre-recession period (2005-06), a “recession” period (2007-08) and a “post-recession” period (2009-10) for working-age adults. Correspondingly, diet quality improved slightly, with a lower share of calories coming from fat and saturated fat, less cholesterol consumed, and more fiber. The decline in FAFH consumption explains less than 20 percent of the diet quality improvements. Increases in consumer preferences for nutrition and use of nutrition information when food shopping also likely lead to improvements in diet quality over this period. Research results from this report were presented at multiple briefings to senior USDA officials and results were also picked up by major media outlets.

Menu labeling allows consumers to make finer adjustments in their food choices and behavior. Restaurant foods are typically higher in calories than meals consumed at home. A goal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 is to encourage healthier food choices at restaurants by informing consumers about the calorie content of menu items. However, some consumers may already be making at least partially informed decisions. For example, as a rule of thumb, a consumer may be aware that deep fried foods are higher in calories. He or she may also know to avoid side dishes like French fries and onion rings. Indeed, it has been argued that some consumers can already identify which foods best satisfy their needs and wants, and gain little new information from menu labeling. ERS analyzed whether rules of thumb predict the calorie content of meals sold by fast food restaurants and full-service restaurants. Results show that some simple rules of thumb are fairly reliable predictors of actual calorie content. They and other information available at the point of sale also explain about half of the total variation in calories in restaurant foods. Nonetheless, menu labeling still imparts substantial new information. Research results from this report were presented at multiple briefings to senior USDA officials.

Inflation and higher food prices kept food insecurity rates relatively high after the 2007-09 recession. ERS examined the extent to which year-to-year changes in the prevalence of U.S. household food insecurity can be explained by changes in the national unemployment rate, inflation, and the price of food relative to other goods and services. Data are from the 2001-12 used in this analysis shed light on why food security has remained essentially unchanged since the 2007-09 recession. Falling unemployment from early post-recession (2009-10) to 2012, absent any other changes, would suggest a modest decline in the prevalence of food insecurity. However, that potential improvement was almost exactly offset by the effects of higher inflation and the higher relative price of food in 2012.

SNAP households must balance multiple priorities to achieve a healthful diet. To track how dietary awareness differs across various population subgroups and how those differences correlate with diet quality, ERS partnered with the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to gather and track information on changing food habits, attitudes, and dietary behaviors of U.S. consumers through a consumer behavior module—the Flexible Consumer Behavior Survey (FCBS)—in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Findings from the ERS-sponsored module shed light on diet-health connections, especially in relation to nutrition assistance and education programs, and obesity prevention. While most Americans choose a diet that is far from ideal, ERS analysis show that, compared to both income eligible non-participants and higher income shoppers, SNAP participants eat significantly less whole fruit, fewer whole grains, fewer vegetables(especially those that are dark green), and also eat more empty calories.

Cost estimates of foodborne illnesses data provide Federal agencies with consistent, peer-reviewed estimates of the costs of foodborne illness that can be used in analyzing the impact of Federal regulations. ERS’ updated data product, produced in collaboration with the Food Safety and Inspection Service, provides detailed data about the costs of major foodborne illnesses in the United States including identification of specific disease outcomes for foodborne infections caused by 15 major pathogens in the United States, associated outpatient and inpatient expenditures on medical care, associated lost wages, and estimates of individuals’ willingness to pay to reduce mortality resulting from these foodborne illnesses. It also provides stakeholders and the general public with a means of understanding the relative impact of different foodborne infections in the United States. Cost estimates of foodborne illnesses have been used in the past to help inform food-safety policy discussions, and these updated cost estimates will provide a foundation for economic analysis of food safety policy.

Establishments that bid on contracts to supply the USDA’s National School Lunch Program had relatively higher levels of food safety performance, as measured by fewer samples of meat testing positive for Salmonella, than other establishments supplying ground beef to the commercial market. ERS examined the food safety performance of suppliers of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and found evidence of strategic behavior in which managers use information about their establishment’s past food safety performance to decide whether to bid on contracts to supply the NSLP. Research results from this report were presented at multiple briefings to senior USDA officials.

Last updated: Tuesday, August 20, 2019

For more information contact: Ephraim Leibtag