Bread and flour industry rising to the COVID-19 challenge

When making bread, following the directions and sticking to the recipe is key. You have to add the right amount of yeast, allow it to rise in a warm place and bake it to the appropriate amount of time. For the bread and flour industry, following strict protocols, monitoring employee health and keeping up with product demand have kept them on track to getting America through the COVID-19 pandemic, one peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a time.

Christine Cochran, executive director of the Grain Foods Foundation, said the flour and bread industry are working to produce enough products to meet the shift in demand caused by COVID-19 and also juggle safety precautions. Additionally, Cochran said every baker she has spoken with started proactively planning and working to secure their supply chains well in advance of the demand shift, guaranteeing that food quality and safety would not be compromised.

“Moreover, we have seen at least two major companies, Flowers Foods and The Kroger Company, award appreciation bonuses to their workers and independent contractors for their commitment to keeping operations running.”

On a positive note, now more than ever, bread and flour have cemented themselves as pantry staples just about every American needs in their kitchen—a welcome observation for this industry.

“Bakers are doing what they do best—baking. They have secured their supply chains, focused their manufacturing on the most in-demand, products, and implemented measures to ensure both food safety and worker health.” Cochran said. “Companies are also managing a complicated, rapidly changing web of federal, state, and local rules and regulations. With all of this buzzing in the background, bakers are still delivering the delicious, fresh products Americans need in a timely way.”

However, the popularity of bread and flour has not always been this way. Cochran said the U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows a slow but steady decline in per capita consumption of wheat flour since 2000, and the industry has seen an even steeper decline in the consumption of fresh bread over the same time period.

“So it will be interesting to see if the shift in demand that we are experiencing now is just a momentary, short-term change or one that persists as consumers fall in love with bread again,” Cochran added.  “Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, food service and retail shared the consumer demand for breadbasket products. However, over the last two weeks restaurant transactions have declined by more than 40% when compared to the same timeframe last year. But this consumption did not evaporate; instead, we are seeing it move into the grocery store.

”One aspect of bread that is going toward its favor is the fact that most people consider it to be a feel-good food. Cochran said according to the April 2020 Grain Foods Foundation Omnibus Survey Research Report, almost 30% of Americans claim that bread is comforting in times of stress.

“What makes bread different from, say, ice cream or candy, which 61% and 43% say is comforting, respectively, is that almost 30% also find bread ‘healthy and nutritious.’ Taking a step back, all of this suggests that the breadbasket is unique and special because it provides both comfort and nutrition—it’s therefore something that many Americans turn to, or return to, during times like these.”

Is COVID-19 a threat to bread manufacturing?

Fear borne from the media and unreliable reports has caused consumers to question everything when it comes to the transmission of coronavirus. However, Cochran said shoppers should not fear their bread or its packaging. She said that according the U.S. Food and Drug Administration there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with COVID-19 transmission.

“With this in mind, it’s important for consumers to know that there is no need to wipe down any food packaging, but if doing so makes them feel better they must not let the wipe or cleaner come in contact with food directly. This not only goes for packaged foods within the breadbasket but also for produce, which should only be washed with clean water to prevent sickness from residual detergents or chemicals.”

Although Cochran cleared up the myths about COVID-19 being on bread packaging, she did also address the elephant in the room—bread factory workers that have contracted coronavirus.

“Flowers Foods temporarily closing a plant in Georgia following an increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at the bakery as well as employees self-quarantining,” she explained. “We have also seen some factories opt to close in the short term in order to protect workers and the work environment. These companies have typically shifted production to other facilities so that neither supply nor food safety are compromised.”

Although the bread industry is in the same boat as every other commodity when it comes to balancing the demand of their product and the safety of their employees and consumers, Cochran is confident bread facilities are handling the risks properly and still keeping up with demand for the most part.

It is no secret there is a surplus of wheat right now, securing more than enough ingredients to make as much bread as is in demand during the pandemic, Cochran says the primary vulnerability for the milling and baking industry, which is the same vulnerability shared by all essential businesses, is workforce.

“Milling and baking companies have been proactively protecting themselves from this vulnerability for weeks by hiring and training additional workers who will be prepared if and when current employees become sick and must miss work for a period of time,” she said. “As someone who’s been part of the commodity grain industry for over 15 years, it’s been very powerful to see so many members of the supply chain do anything and everything they can to provide Americans with what they are demanding now and will continue to demand as this crisis continues to unfold.”

No matter what this pandemic throws at wheat growers and members of the grain industry, the bins will be full of wheat and pantries will have plenty of bread, and that is encouraging thought.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or [email protected].