April 6th, 2020 by Priya Nicholas
Since the stay-at-home advice was issued by the government in a bid to help restrict the COVID-19 virus, Britons have refound and rekindled their love of homebaking. Such is the demand that online mill shops have paused sales; and the homebaking sections in shops are frequently empty.
So, naturally the first thought is: are we going to run out of flour? The simple answer is no …
The the issue isn’t a lack of flour – don’t forget with large customers like Greggs, Pret, McDonalds etc closing – UK flour millers have more flour than ever! But, it takes a lot longer to pack small bags of flour than larger bags.
In recent weeks, UK flour millers have been producing twice as much retail flour – up from the usual 2 million 1.5kg bags-a-week to 4 million. The industry is currently packing the smaller bags at full capacity. It is predicted that demand will level out soon, enabling everyone who wants to bake at home to do so.
Below is a statement from Alex Waugh, the director general of the trade association for UK Flour Millers; and he explains in full why we are seeing a shortage of flour in shops despite the UK having plenty of flour available.
RETAIL FLOUR SHORTAGES
The following is a statement from ALEX WAUGH, director general of the National Association of British & Irish Millers (nabim) – the trade association for UK flour millers – regarding the current shortages of flour in supermarkets and shops.
The UK is self-sufficient in flour, producing about 90,000 tonnes every week. Yet many people are experiencing shortages in supermarkets and shops.
To understand why this should be the case, it may be useful to offer an overview of how the industry operates on a typical, day-to-day basis.
Most UK flour is produced in bulk and delivered either in tankers or in 16kg or 25kg bags to bakeries and other food manufacturers.
Only a small proportion – around 4% of the total flour milled is sold through shops and supermarkets.
Ordinarily consumers purchase about 3,000 tonnes of flour a week in the shops – equivalent to two million 1.5kg bags. On average, each of the 27.5 million households in the UK buys a bag of flour every 14 weeks.
However since the COVID-19 outbreak, and in response to the subsequent lock-down, both regular bulk buyers and consumers have been purchasing much more than normal. Inevitably, existing stocks have been quickly used up and many households have been unable to buy.
In response, UK millers have been working round the clock – genuinely milling flour 24-hours-day-seven-days-a-week to double the production of retail flour in an effort to meet demand. The equivalent of 3.5million to 4 million bags have been produced weekly by running packing lines at maximum capacity. However, production is limited by the capacity to pack small bags, so even this is only sufficient for 15% of households to buy a bag of flour per week. Supplies of commercial flour are typically delivered either in larger bags or tankers and are therefore not subject to the same limitations.
One option is for retailers and wholesalers to stock larger bags of flour, which might be suited to more regular home-bakers. This would require a change in shopping patterns, however.
Otherwise, it will be a question of time before the surge in demand reduces enough for this enhanced level of production to meet requirements and allow stock levels to be rebuilt.