OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- ConAgra's oats business is booming thanks largely to a health-conscious America, said the manager of oats procurement and logistics for ConAgra Specialty Grain Products Co.

Speaking last month to the Omaha Agri-Business Club, Jeffrey Johannesmeyer said the market for oats products has really taken off in recent years because consumers want to eat good things and to think that what they eat is good for them.

Omaha-based ConAgra believes consumers will be the driving force in shaping food industry trends.

``People are eating healthier, and oat bran is a part of the diet,'' he said.

Johannesmeyer said he would not attempt to refute a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine disputing the merits of oat bran. But he pointed out that it was just one article in 20 years of research studying the correlation between oat bran intake and reduced serum cholesterol levels.

``People are interested in eating well,'' Johannesmeyer said. ``Cost is a factor, but almost anything you buy out there is a bargain when it comes to food costs.''

To capture a bigger share of the oat products market, Johannesmeyer said, ConAgra hopes to have its new oats-processing plant in South Sioux City milling a full line of oats products by next month. All would be sold to bakers and other food companies, rather than packaged under a ConAgra label.

The South Sioux City plant should be capable of milling 52,000 bushels of oats a day, Johannesmeyer said.

Among the products would be about 900,000 pounds of oat flour per day. Other plant products will be bran, oat flakes, quick oats, instant oats and baby oats.

Johannesmeyer said it takes about six bushels of quality oats to yield 100 pounds of oat flour.

About 35 percent of a bushel of oats is eliminated from the milling process as hulls, he said. The hulls have been used to reduce the shrinkage in silage packing and as poultry litter, but the company would like to see some additional uses develop for the byproduct.

In addition to the milling process, Johannesmeyer said, oats also will pass through a kiln to bake away fatty acids that would otherwise turn the products rancid-tasting.

Johannesmeyer said in three to five years, ConAgra plans to add 2.5 million bushels in additional storage capacity at South Sioux City.

ConAgra has also converted a former flour mill at Fergus Falls, Minn., to oats milling, he said.

Johannesmeyer said the South Sioux City plant will be versatile enough to mill other small grains such as barley, buckwheat and grain sorghum if the company should choose to do so.

In that five-state area, 45 percent of all the oats in the country is produced. The mill has also processed imported oats from some of the Scandinavian countries, Canada and South America, but U.S. oats are preferred because their quality is more predictable, he said.

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