The UK milling industry
The lack of flour on the shelves of supermarkets during the lockdown was not down to a supply issue but a change in the profile of demand. Prior to the pandemic, retail-packaged flour represented just 4% of total flour consumption in the UK, with the rest attributed to the commercial sector, such as commercial bakers, large-scale food manufacturers and the hospitality industry. However, data from the IRI shows that following the COVID-19 outbreak, there was a huge change in consumption patterns, leading to a 145% increase in the sale of flour in retailers (week ending 15th March). This was due to the part-closure of a portion of the commercial sectors that made up a large percentage of flour consumption coupled with the rise of domestic flour consumption. In response to this massive increase for retail flour, UK Millers began working round the clock, milling 24-hours-a-day-seven-days-a-week, according to the National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim) director Alex Waugh.
For example, Wessex Mill in Oxfordshire began running a 24-hour milling operation for the first time in its 125-year history, whilst also supplementing the 15% of its workforce it lost due to self-isolation with local people who were out of work. The shift in the demand for flour meant that smaller mills, as well as commercial mills, had a higher demand for retail flour rather than the bulk commercial flour they were used to packaging. Therefore, many mills encountered logistical problems in their milling operations while working to meet the surge in demand for flour. Mills that deal with the commercial market typically package flour in bags larger than 16kg; this meant that there were not enough packing lines packaging flour in smaller sizes to meet the demand. Even with packing lines running at full capacity mills were only able to produce enough packaged flour for 15% of households to buy one bag of flour per week, resulting in the shortage seen on supermarket shelves. This shortage was soon fixed when demand lowered, and the increased production allowed stocks of flour to level out. Although the first few months of the pandemic will be remembered for the lack of flour on supermarket shelves, it highlighted the positive attitudes of the milling industry in the UK and its will to fight in the face of uncertainty to keep the nation fed.
Bakery and Snacks, UK millers working around the clock to address flour shortage, 1st April 2020, https://www.bakeryandsnacks.com/article/2020/04/01/uk-millers-working-around-the-clock-to-address-flour-shortage
BBC, Coronavirus: Flour mills working ’round the clock’ to meet demand, 9th April 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52212760
British Baker, Nabim: packaging limitation causes retail flour shortage, 1st April 2020, https://bakeryinfo.co.uk/news/fullstory.php/aid/22857/Why_has_there_been_a_flour_shortage_in_supermarkets_.html