Key Accomplishments, FY 2015

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:

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.

Farming is still an industry of family businesses. The latest ERS report on the structure and finances of U.S. farm farms shows that most farms—97 percent in 2011—are family operations, and even the largest farms are predominantly family-run. Midsize and large-scale family farms account for 8 percent of U.S. farms but 60 percent of the value of production. In contrast, small family farms make up 90 percent of the U.S. farm count but produce a 26-percent share of farm output. The findings point are used to inform Departmental polices that consider the specific needs of different kinds of farms and the farmers who operate them.

The ERS commodity outlook program serves USDA stakeholders in the public and private sectors by delivering timely, independent and objective information about agricultural markets. These reports and data products are among the most widely accessed ERS products, and ERS is committed to maintaining a strong and vibrant commodity outlook program. ERS is in the process of implementing a strategic plan focused on the actions necessary to continue and strengthen this program. These actions include a sustainable staffing plan to support long-term succession planning and high-quality analysis as senior analysts retire; enhancements to the content and communication of commodity outlook material using the best technologies for data delivery and access; and implementing internal data and process improvements to minimize errors and promote more efficient use of analyst time. ERS will be implementing this plan over the course of FY 2016 and FY 2017.

Rural child poverty rose from 19 percent in 1999 to 26 percent by 2013. This change, however, was uneven across the landscape. Along with the recession, an increase in rural children in single-parent households, continuing from the 1990s, was a major contributor to the rise in child poverty. Moreover, counties with the largest increases in child poverty over the decade tended to have both low young adult education levels and high proportions of children in single-parent families. This study was reported in the ERS magazine Amber Waves and has been the subject of a number of briefings to senior USDA policy makers and to the White House Rural Council.

A variety of factors lead migrants to return to their rural home communities. Persistent population loss is a challenge for many rural communities in the United States, especially those in more remote areas lacking scenic amenities. Return migration plays a largely overlooked role in replenishing population numbers while raising education levels and increasing the social vitality of rural communities. An ERS report based on structured interviews with both returnees and non-returnees at high school reunions across the U.S. found that family-based motivations—assisting aging parents and raising children—were the primary reason for returning home to rural communities. Also important are availability of employment and a desire for attractive communities that had invested in cultural and recreational assets. Non-returnees saw limited rural employment opportunities, shopping and entertainment choices, and kid-friendly activities as barriers to returning. Returnees often brought back advanced education, job skills, and life experiences. Their entrepreneurial activities often created jobs and expanded services. The report generated significant media attention, including a USDA radio interview, and the results were presented in a webinar to the general public.

A disproportionately small share of grants by large foundations were disbursed to rural recipients during 2005 to 2010. U.S. foundations disbursed more than $45 billion in grants for public needs in the United States and elsewhere in 2010. An ERS report characterized trends and patterns of foundation grants to rural communities. About 6 to 7 percent of Foundation grant funds were disbursed to rural recipients during 2005 to 2010, less than the rural share of the population at 19 percent. The average real value of grants provided by large foundations to organizations based in nonmetropolitan counties from 2005 to 2010 was about $88 per capita (in 2010 dollars), less than half the average provided to organizations in metropolitan counties. Differences in educational attainment and in the capacity of local nonprofit organizations account for much of the variation across counties. The report has been extensively cited in news articles published in Nonprofit Quarterly and other outlets.

Producer participation in local food systems and the value of local food sales are growing. 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. In addition, farms selling local food through direct-to-consumer marketing channels were more likely to remain in business (using 2007-12 data) than all farms not using these channels. Various findings from the report were presented in multiple briefings to senior USDA policy officials. The report, which has been cited by national news media, including a story on National Public Radio and a widely-read LA Times article, was presented in two highly-attended webinars, and has been downloaded nearly 10,000 times.

Most land in farms is operated by the land owner. The 2014 Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land (TOTAL) survey, conducted by NASS and ERS, integrates data on farm finance and land ownership. The TOTAL survey collected data in the 48 contiguous states on landlords’ acres rented out, income, expenses, assets, debt, race, gender, land transfer plans, and more, to provide detailed information from all agricultural land owners, whether operating or non-operating. The survey revealed that 61 percent of all land in farms is operated by the land owner and another 8 percent is rented from other farm operators. The remainder of land in farms (31 percent) is rented from non-operator landlords. However, operator landlords typically rent out more acreage than non-operator landlords—a median of 80 acres compared to 55 acres. Data from the survey were released in August 2015 and data tabulations were published in the NASS QuickStats database and in a Fact Sheet. Several briefings on the new survey were provided to senior policy officials in USDA and initial statistical findings published in Amber Waves.

Mandatory price reporting for livestock transactions over the past 15 years led to some improvements in price discovery and market efficiency. ERS conducted research on transactions in cash and futures markets since the inception of the Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act (LMRA) in 1999 to investigate its impacts on markets in the context of declining participation in cash markets in favor of alternative marketing arrangements. Specifically, ERS analyzed the LMRA’s impacts on price discovery, market efficiency, and price behavior before and after passage of the 1999 Act in a report published in September, 2015. Results indicate that price discovery improved in the LMR period, with greater convergence between cash and futures markets for cattle and hogs. Additionally, market efficiency, measured as the speed at which markets absorb new information, improved in the LMR period despite declining cash-market transactions. The research found no significant differences in the behavior of prices in cash markets between the pre-LMR and LMR periods.

Renewable energy policies have emerged as key drivers in global markets for biofuels. ERS research finds that since reaching record highs in 2006, prices of traditional transportation fuels have moderated to a point where policies mandating biofuel production and consumption are the primary determinants of trade in renewable fuels. If the ethanol blending rate in Brazil continues to increase, less Brazilian ethanol will be available to compete with the United States on the global market. At the same time, Brazil could continue to import U.S. ethanol to help meet its mandate. Reducing the amount of ethanol that can be derived from corn in the U.S. renewal fuel mandate could increase exports in the short run, but potentially lead to reduction in U.S. ethanol production infrastructure and thereby limit the availability of ethanol for exports in the long run. ERS briefed senior officials in USDA’s Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Mission Area on their findings in the report.

ERS estimates that the effects of recent decreases in energy prices on acreage and production are relatively small. ERS research found that recent lower oil and natural gas prices led to lower projected costs of production for major field crops. In percentage terms, all changes in estimated production costs were small relative to the sizes of the energy price reductions. ERS estimated overall planting to major field crops increased by about 1.1 million acres in 2015, a relatively small gain of 0.4 percent due to lower energy prices. Estimated acreage changes were fairly small because prices for energy-related inputs fall by less than the change in energy prices, and energy-related costs represent only a portion of total operating expenses. With lower energy costs, commodity prices are expected to decrease, and overall farm production expenses in the sector are decreased. The research also indicated that lower energy prices in 2015 and also projected for 2016 will minimally increase the demand for ethanol, reflecting the increase in gasoline consumption.


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:

Climate change is likely to increase the use of genetic resources for adaptation to heat and drought stress. Crop genetic resources are an important foundation of U.S. and global agricultural production. An ERS study released in April 2015 that reviewed the types and uses of genetic resources found that demand for crop genetic resources from the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) has increased rapidly in recent years, even as the NPGS budget has fallen in real dollars. Two types of technical change could reduce the costs of accessing genetic resources and thus increase their use—improvements in genetic resource collection, conservation, characterization, and evaluation methods; and increased efficiency in incorporating valuable genetic traits into commercial crop varieties. Since no single country possesses all the genetic resources it requires within its borders, institutional factors such as international agreements and intellectual property rules can promote or hinder greater use of crop genetic resources. USDA policy officials were briefed on the report and committees and the findings were covered in over a dozen news feeds and blogs.

Implementation of the Evidence and Innovation Agenda continues as experiments are used to test existing and new approaches to program delivery. ERS, along with the ERS-funded Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Policy Research, is collaborating with USDA agencies on randomized controlled trials to generate evidence for policy use. A randomized controlled trial among rural farmers, which showed how outreach can significantly improve participation in FSA’s micro loans programs, was completed, leading to a briefing with FSA policy officials. Active field and lab experiments include “nudges” looking at what initiatives and incentives are best suited for encouraging participation in Chesapeake Bay Conservation Programs. In addition, an ERS study published in 2015 on auctions in USDA conservation programs set out conditions under which auctions are likely to increase cost-effectiveness—environmental gain per dollar of program expenditure. Alternative auction mechanisms were investigated via economic experiments performed in classroom laboratories. Briefings on the report were provided to multiple USDA policy officials and researchers. A webinar reached a broader audience.

ERS research examined the issues related to the declining effectiveness of glyphosate and choices for managing increased resistance to it. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the United States; it is highly effective at controlling a variety of weeds, relatively inexpensive and flexible in use, and less environmentally damaging than the herbicides that it replaced. However, glyphosate’s effectiveness is declining as weed resistance mounts, potentially reducing crop yields and increasing costs. The study, released in April 2015, finds that reliance on glyphosate by many growers as the sole herbicide to control weeds is the primary factor underlying the evolution of resistant weeds. Glyphosate resistance is more prevalent in soybean production than in corn; soybean producers have been more likely to use glyphosate exclusively and on more acres than in corn production. Managing resistance—by using glyphosate in fewer years, combining glyphosate with one or more alternative herbicides, and avoiding glyphosate application in consecutive seasons—is a cost effective strategy compared to ignoring resistance. The benefits from managing resistance are greater when neighboring farmers all act to manage resistance than when a single farmer does so. Findings from the report were presented through multiple briefings to USDA policy officials and were also published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The cost, biophysical impacts, and benefit valuation of wetland restoration and protection efforts vary widely from place to place, depending on a host of factors. An ERS study released in February 2015 found that the cost of restoring a wetland ranges from $170/acre in the Western Dakotas, Montana, Arkansas, and Louisiana to $6,100/acre in major corn-producing areas and along the Northern Pacific Coast. The values society places on the eight benefits examined in this report—duck hunting, carbon sequestration, flood protection, nitrogen removal, species protection, open space, sediment removal, and groundwater recharge—are often difficult to estimate, and vary widely when dollar amounts can be estimated. But even with this incomplete information, it is clear that in some areas, such as the western Prairie Pothole Region, the benefits of wetland preservation far exceed the costs. Senior policy officials in the Natural Resource and Environment mission area were briefed on the report findings.

The 2012-2015 droughts in California are having a major impact on agriculture. A variety of mechanisms influence how those impacts are felt by farmers, crop and livestock consumers, and the food sector. ERS updates regularly its web-based information on factors that drive the impacts of droughts in California. By drawing on existing ERS research and bringing new analysis to bear, ERS researchers provide the public and policy makers with information on how factors like groundwater pumping, commodity market adjustments, crop insurance, and changes in planted acreage are diffusing and mitigating the drought impacts. This research has been widely viewed and has generated direct inquiries for additional information from USDA policy makers, the press, the White House (Office of Science and Technology Policy), the Subcommittee on Water Availability and Quality, and the State Department.


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:

Increased production in U.S. agriculture since the end of World War II has been driven almost entirely by gains in productivity rather than increases in farm inputs. An ERS study finds that while output grew at 1.49 percent per year between 1948 and 2011, most of that—1.42 percent—is attributed to increases in total factor productivity (TFP). This is in contrast to the rest of the U.S. economy, where increases in output rely largely on greater use of labor, materials, and capital inputs. The ERS study also finds that over time, the mix of agricultural inputs used has shifted, with increased use of intermediate goods such as fertilizer and pesticides and less use of labor and land. The output mix changed as well, with crop production growing faster than livestock production. Slowing growth in U.S. crop yields during the 1990s led to concerns about a possible productivity slowdown in the U.S. farm sector. Based on econometric analysis of historical TFP data, the study finds no statistical evidence that long-run U.S. agricultural productivity growth has slowed over time. However, model-based future TFP growth scenarios show that if annual public research expenditures remain constant and fail to keep up with inflation, the annual rate of TFP growth is projected to fall from the historical average of 1.42 percent to 0.86 percent by 2050. These findings were reported in a briefing to USDA policy officials and in Congressional testimony by senior USDA officials.

Organic field crops have been profitable compared with conventional field crops primarily due to the significant price premiums paid for certified organic production that more than offset the additional economic costs. ERS research finds that organic corn and soybean production was profitable at price premiums paid for organic crops during 2011-14. Organic wheat was less profitable than conventional wheat during 2011-12, but profitability improved during 2013-14. Despite potentially higher returns, the adoption of organic field crops among U.S. producers remains low, likely due to the challenges of organic production such as lower yields and effective weed control. Findings of this research were disseminated via a webinar sponsored by the USDA Organic Working Group targeting the US Organic Grain Collaborative, made up of companies and associations in the organic sector, and investors/venture capitalists interested in organic agriculture.

Food security is projected to improve for many 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 between 2014 and 2015. Additional analysis found that 38 of 76 countries met or exceeded the World Food Summit goal of reducing by half the number of food-insecure people between 1995 and 2015.  However, food security is projected to worsen slightly over the next decade with both Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa contributing to the increase in food-insecure people. A new approach to measuring food security was also introduced, providing a framework that allows for analysis of the effects of change in income and prices on food security. ERS briefed the Office of the Chief Economist on the findings of the report. The researchers were also invited to present their findings at the 29th International Conference of Agricultural Economists in Milan in August, 2015, and were interviewed by the Voice of America about the report’s results for North Korea.

ERS research suggests that households do not distribute calories equitably across all household members in developing countries, and that the depth of undernourishment for certain household members may be greater than traditional household consumption surveys suggest. Specifically, it was found that household heads in Bangladesh consume an inequitable share of household calories, where approximately 70 percent of heads were adequately nourished in households that did not have enough food available to meet each member’s daily energy requirements. Alternatively, in households with enough food available to meet each member’s daily energy requirements, approximately 30 percent of women and children were actually undernourished.  The findings suggest that accounting for the intrahousehold distribution of food is important to the implementation of programs, such as Feed the Future, seeking to improve the nutritional status of women and children.

USDA Agricultural Projections to 2024 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 2015 projections indicate that the agricultural sector will adjust to lower prices for most farm commodities in the near term, as prices decline from highs in recent years. For crops, production response to lower prices will result in reduced acreage planted. In the livestock sector, lower feed costs will provide economic incentives for expansion. Longer run developments for global agriculture reflect steady world economic growth and continued global demand for biofuel feedstocks, which combine to support increases in consumption, trade, and prices of agricultural products. The 2015 long-term projections were presented in a session at the February 2015 USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum. The projections also helped shape the FY 2015 Budget, and supported the Farm Service Agency’s estimation of budget costs for farm program commodities. 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.

The joint effects of sanitary and phytosanitary measures and tariff rate quotas maintained by the European Union (EU) significantly impede U.S. meat exports. ERS investigated the effects of EU non-tariff barriers on trade in the context of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership (T-TIP), a trade agreement under negotiation between the U.S. and EU. The research provided in-depth analysis of the multifaceted nature of the EU’s protection structure of its meat market. The EU’s limited TRQ and its ban on beef hormones were assessed as the primary constraint for U.S. beef market access. Required pathogen reduction treatments on poultry products were identified as a de facto ban on U.S. exports. U.S. pork access is impeded by a collective set of policy barriers related to ractopamine and other SPS restrictions. These findings were reported to senior USDA officials in a series of briefings.

Easing trade and travel restrictions could stimulate increased levels and a wider variety of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. ERS research on the past, present, and possible future of U.S.-Cuba agricultural trade indicates that the United States is already one of Cuba’s leading suppliers of agricultural imports (primarily chicken meat, corn, soybean meal and soybeans) due to a loosening of the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba in 2000 that allows for U.S. sales of agricultural products and medicine to Cuba. The executive actions announced in December 2014 and June 2015 allow sales of agricultural equipment to small farmers, and permit U.S. firms to establish offices and warehouses in Cuba. These actions by themselves could foster some additional agricultural trade with Cuba, including increased US exports of rice, wheat, nonfat dried milk, and other commodities, but a remaining prohibition on extending credit to Cuban buyers will likely limit the rate of growth. ERS briefed senior USDA officials, the National Security Council, and the Arkansas State Government on the report’s findings.

China’s accumulation of large cotton stockpiles to support prices for its domestic producers from 2011 – 2013 has introduced a new degree of uncertainty into world cotton markets. ERS research finds that China’s price support policy drove world cotton stocks to nearly double the average levels over the past half century, and global cotton markets face a difficult and costly transition if policy shifts in China return world stocks to normal levels with anything other than a long period of transition. China’s policymakers have signaled their intentions to alter their cotton support to reduce the link between income and price support, shifting from nearly complete reliance on price supports to a much greater reliance on income subsidies to farmers. New policies supporting cotton production sector will have to comply with its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization. How China will deal with the unprecedented level of stocks accumulated in the past is uncertain, but lower imports by China is highly likely over several years. ERS briefed Congressional staff on the potential market impacts and implications for U.S. cotton producers under different Chinese policy scenarios.


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:

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants are less likely to drive their own car to do their primary food shopping and more likely to get rides from someone else or take public transit. However, these differences in transportation mode do not translate into differences in the types of stores used for grocery shopping among SNAP households. The National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) is the first survey to collect unique and comprehensive data about food purchases and acquisitions for a nationally representative sample of U.S. households. In March 2015, ERS published a report that compared shopping patterns of SNAP households to low- and higher income nonparticipant households and found that many households bypass the store that is closest to them to shop at another store. For example, among SNAP households, the nearest store was, on average, 2.0 miles from the household, but the store primarily used for grocery shopping was, on average, 3.4 miles from the household. Multiple intramural and extramural research projects are underway using FoodAPS with reports focusing on general food expenditures and WIC participant shopping behavior planned for release in 2016.

An estimated 86 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2014, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.6 percent with very low food security because the household lacked money and other resources for food, resulting in reduced food intake and disruptions in eating patterns for one or more household members. Additional research focused specifically on children shows that an estimated 90.6 percent of households with children were food secure throughout the year in 2011, which denotes that all 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.

Following Dietary Guidance need not cost more, but many Americans would need to re-allocate their food budgets to do so. Behavioral changes can improve diet quality, but major improvements would require Americans to change how they allocate their food budgets across food groups. Most Americans across all income levels consume poor diets. Behavior changes, such as preparing food at home instead of eating out, are associated with improvements in diet quality. To realize the much larger improvements in diet quality required to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, ERS research found that many Americans would need to reallocate their food budgets, spending a larger share on fruits and vegetables and a lower share on protein foods and foods high in solid fats, added sugars, and sodium. Briefings on this topic to senior USDA and other policy officials informed discussions of the upcoming release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

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.

Households living in low-income, low food-access areas have only slightly lower diet quality than other households and this difference is partially alleviated when these consumers travel farther from their homes to purchase food. About 10 percent of the U.S. population lives in low-income areas more than 1 mile from the nearest supermarket. The diet quality of these consumers may be compromised by their food environment. Some may be unable to reach supermarkets regularly or without effort, instead buying food from closer stores that offer less healthy food products. ERS investigated the correlation between households that live in low-income, low-access areas and their purchases of 14 major food groups that vary in dietary quality using supermarket scanner data. Briefings on this topic to senior USDA and other policy officials informed discussions of continuing efforts to improve food access for low-income households across the U.S.

ERS linked 2008-12 SNAP administrative records to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) on the use of SNAP and other public assistance programs to provide better information on SNAP receipt than that which would be estimated by the ACS alone. SNAP provides food and nutrition benefits to low-income households based on a formula that adjusts the benefit amount a household receives based on monthly need. ERS assessed the extent to which SNAP reaches the poorest households, also known as benefit targeting, by estimating benefit receipt by annual household income relative to poverty. Estimates of SNAP targeting toward low-income households improve when using either of two measures of intensity of SNAP participation relative to measures of ever-in-the-year participation. Replacing survey-based data on SNAP benefit receipt with administrative records of SNAP benefit receipt and adjusting the survey households to more closely reflect administrative SNAP units also improves estimates of targeting to low-income participants. Briefings to senior official at FNCS and FNS informed decision makers about the effect of more expansive data on participation measures.

School meal programs are adjusting to stronger nutritional standards, but face challenges in maintaining paid lunch participation to meet revenue goals. School foodservice programs face ongoing tradeoffs between meal cost, student participation, and nutrition quality. Changes mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 strengthened nutritional standards for meals and competitive foods and set minimum levels for paid meal revenues, while new options allow more schools to offer free meals to all students at reduced administrative burden. An ERS review of recent research results and new data on school lunch participation rates suggests that while many school districts have adjusted to new standards, maintaining paid meal participation remains most challenging for smaller and more rural districts. Briefings to senior USDA officials on this topic have informed USDA efforts to help States meet the challenges related to improving nutrition within allotted budgets.

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’ Cost of Foodborne Illness 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 to help inform food-safety policy discussions, and these updated cost estimates provide a foundation for economic analysis of food safety policy.

New surveys on food safety practices. ERS launched an initiative to collect primary data on current food safety practices for produce growers and post-harvest firms to provide a baseline of compliance costs prior to the full implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The surveys will be completed by NASS in January 2016, and ERS will use the data in estimating the potential economic impacts of FSMA provisions on the fresh produce and animal feed sectors.

Consumers respond differently to foodborne disease outbreaks of different severities. A case study of pathogen-related recalls of cantaloupe in 2011 and 2012 suggests consumers’ food purchase responses take into account the relative risk severity of specific pathogens. Information from news media apparently plays a role. Federal health and safety officials warned consumers away from cantaloupes in 2011 and again in 2012. The warnings occurred under similar market conditions but were for contamination by two different foodborne microorganisms that posed entirely different health risks. After consumers were informed about the risk with the higher fatality rate, the demand for cantaloupes fell and consumers substituted other melons. No such shifts in demand were evident under the lower fatality risk, despite more illnesses attributed to it.

Establishments that bid on contracts to supply the USDA’s National School Lunch Program had relatively higher levels of food safety, as measured by fewer samples of meat testing positive for Salmonella, than other establishments supplying ground beef to the commercial market. In December of 2014, ERS published a report that 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.