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Are retail shortages down to inflexible processes and packaging lines?

08 April 2020

The recent shortage of flour in supermarkets offers a good example of the current inflexibility of our vital food production processes. Suzanne Gill reports. 

The UK is self-sufficient in flour, producing about 90,000 tonnes every week. Yet since the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen widespread shortages in supermarkets and retail outlets.  

A clue as to why comes from Alex Waugh, director general of the National Association of British & Irish Millers (nabim) – the trade association for UK flour millers – who recently explained how the industry typically operates. He said: “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.” 

The response to these rapid changes have resulted in UK millers working round the clock – milling flour 24/7 to double the production of retail flour in an effort to meet demand. 

According to Waugh, the equivalent of 3.5 million to 4 million bags have been produced weekly by running packing lines at maximum capacity. However, production has been 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.

Waugh points out that one option to solve the current dilemma would be for retailers and wholesalers to stock larger bags of flour, which might be suited to more regular home-bakers. “However, this would require a change in shopping patterns. 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,” he said.

Food Processing sees this as just one example which demonstrates the need for the food industry to adopt more flexible production solutions to allow it to react more quickly to unexpected changes in demand. This year the Appetite for Engineering event on 15th October at the MTC in Coventry, will be discussing what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us about the current capabilities of our food factories and the need for greater adoption of automation technologies. To register your interest in attending this event and being part of the conversation about the next vital steps for our industry go to: www.appetite4eng.co.uk/registration/


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