Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack unveiled the latest data on U.S. food availability per capita in a USDA database that researchers, policymakers, media, and marketers use to gauge consumption of individual foods and food groups. For many of the several hundred food commodities covered, today's release marks 100 years of data - from 1909 to 2008.

USDA's Economic Research Service, which created and maintains the data system, updates it annually. "Food availability" is essentially the per capita amount of food in the U.S. food marketing system available for consumption. ERS economists include production and imports of the various foods, and exclude exports as well as farm and industrial uses, to arrive at an approximation of what Americans consume on average. Food availability includes all food-from grocery stores, restaurants, school cafeterias, and other eating places.

"Food availability is a popular proxy for per capita food consumption," said Jean Buzby, one of the economists who maintain the database. "Looking at 100 years of American eating, we can see a reflection of social, economic, and technological developments - including health concerns."

With women entering the labor force in greater numbers in recent decades, for example, availability of in-shell eggs declined and processed eggs increased, reflecting scarcity of time for preparing breakfast and for baking. Cheese availability has skyrocketed, rising from 11.4 pounds per person in 1970 to 31.4 pounds in 2008, owing largely to the popularity of Italian and Mexican eateries as well as innovative cheese products and convenient packaging.

Per capita availability of chicken increased five-fold in the past century, illustrating advances in product development, mass production, and more recently, health concerns associated with fat and cholesterol content of meats. A sharp rise in per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks since the 1940s, along with a corresponding decline in the numbers for milk, is of interest to those concerned with the issue of obesity among Americans.

Since the food availability data do not take into account the quantities lost through waste, moisture loss, spoilage, and inedible portions, the data overstate the amount actually ingested. Therefore ERS in the 1990s developed a second data series in the system that adjusts for spoilage and other losses at the farm, retail/restaurant, and consumer levels for raw and semi-processed agricultural commodities, dating from 1970.

Moreover, this series converts the loss-adjusted amounts into daily per capita calories and food serving equivalents. Data users can compare these food serving equivalents to Federal dietary recommendations for grains, meat, fruits and vegetables, and other foods. The third series in the data system presents estimates compiled by USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion on calories and 27 nutrients in the various food groups.

The USDA Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System is accessible to the public,