Increased production and commercial innovation prevented flour shortages during the first lockdown – so there’s no need to panic this time, says National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim) director Alex Waugh.
In theory, it sounded like the perfect September storm for the UK flour milling industry: the imposition of tougher Covid-19 lockdown measures compounded by the return to our screens of The Great British Bake-Off.
Could it be that, just a few short months after the first national lockdown led to stark headlines about flour shortages, supermarket shelves were about to be emptied again by the panic-buying public?
The answer, of course, was no. There was, and is, plenty of flour.
Indeed there was plenty of flour back in March and April. Shortages, such as they were, were largely due to a run on 1.5kg household bags as the public suddenly developed a taste for home-made muffins and banana bread – and the situation was quickly rectified.
Now, as England enters another month of lockdown and with Christmas fast approaching, the same question is being asked: will we run out of flour?
Without wishing to tempt fate, I think it is highly unlikely – thanks in large part to the efforts of UK flour millers, who have demonstrated remarkable resilience, commitment and ingenuity in the face of unprecedented challenges this year.
It’s worth remembering that at the height of the Spring lockdown there were real (if unfounded) fears that flour supplies would run out. Yet despite reduced workforces, mills immediately cranked up productivity, running at full capacity, round the clock, to ensure demand for retail flour was met. As a result, supplies to shops were increased by a remarkable 80 per cent compared with normal.
At the same time millers also took steps to plug the gap in commercial sales caused by the lack of physical footfall and the enforced closure of the hospitality sector, meaning that overall flour production was similar to last year.
Wright’s, who have been producing flour in Ponder’s End since 1867, introduced an online click and collect service for their customers, while up in North Berwick family firm Mungoswells developed an 85 per cent extraction brown flour instead of separate white and wholemeal, which simplified and sped up production and enabled them to address a growing backlog of orders.
These are just two of many examples I could mention. It has been a source of great pride to see how flour millers across the UK have reacted and adapted to the current situation, ensuring continued supply of this critical foodstuff, which is present in 30 per cent of the thousands of different foods that we buy.
And let’s not forget, all this has taken place against the backdrop of Brexit. With the December 31 deadline for a deal looming ever closer, and EU and UK negotiators still wrangling over the details, millers continue to face uncertainty about how future trading conditions will affect their business.
For now, all we can do be prepared for any eventuality. The good news – or not, depending on your tastes – is that whatever happens there’ll be plenty of banana bread to go round this Christmas.