North America is home to some of the largest, most modern, and most efficient flour milling plants in the world. Its strength has enabled it to cope with the challenges of supplying fast changing market demand in a pandemic crisis, with mills running around the clock to satisfy a sharp rise in demand for home-use flour as lockdowns kept consumers out of foodservice outlets. Mexico’s industry also must handle the effect of a government keen on driving down the consumption of calories.
Sosland Publishing’s 2021 Grain & Milling Annual puts the total number of wheat flour mills in the United States at 160, down six from 2019. The states with the greatest number of mills are Pennsylvania with 13, California with 12 and Kansas with 11. The total US daily capacity in 2021 is 1,518,123 cwts, down 56,940 cwts from the previous year. The 22 largest companies have 96% of total US capacity, led by Ardent Mills, which alone can produce 470,060 cwts of flour per day.
While Ardent Mills and ADM Milling (276,100 cwts per day) are far and away the largest milling companies in the United States, the industry also features a number of mid-sized, family-owned companies that have operated successfully for many decades such as Bay State Milling, Siemer Milling, Mennel Milling and King Milling.
The largest mill in the United States is that of the North Dakota Mill & Elevator Association at Grand Forks, North Dakota, US. The only state-owned mill in the United States announced in October 2020 that it plans to expand its milling capacity to 60,500 cwts by adding a 6,000-cwt durum unit and 4,000-cwt spring wheat unit. They will be the plant’s ninth and tenth milling units.
According to figures cited by the Canadian National Millers Association, there are 48 wheat and 7 oat mills in Canada. They process approximately 3.1 million tonnes of wheat a year and produce around 2.4 million tonnes of flour and milled wheat products.
ADM Milling, Parrish & Heimbecker Ltd., Ardent Mills and Rogers Foods are the country’s largest millers, with the largest mill operated by ADM Milling in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, with a daily capacity of 16,500 cwts.
According to the USDA attaché’s annual report on the grains sector in Mexico, the country has 86 mills. Grupo Trimex, which in 2014 acquired the wheat flour milling operations of Gruma SAB de CV, operates 13 mills and is the country’s largest miller.
“These mills continue to modernize with more efficient equipment and older mills are being replaced,” the attaché said.
According to the International Grains Council, the United States is expected to export 380,000 tonnes of wheat flour in 2020-21, and Canada 280,000 tonnes. US wheat flour imports are put at 350,000 tonnes, with Mexico importing 280,000 tonnes and Canada 80,000.
In its November Wheat Outlook report, the USDA’s Economic Research Service, citing National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) data, said that “after a sharp decline in June following a previous, months-long increase linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, food use rebounded again July through September.”
The USDA explained that “in the first several months of COVID-19-related orders to shelter in place, retail consumers stocked up on flour and purchased enough baked goods to more than offset declining foodservice use. However, the effects of stocking up eased in early- to mid-summer and wheat food data indicated the start of a decline.
“This shift was expected by the wheat milling industry to set the tone for future months as foodservice spending slowly recovered and retail demand for wheat products remained inhibited,” the USDA said.
In a blog on the effects of the pandemic issued on Aug. 13, Dan Dye, chief executive officer of Ardent Mills, said, “we know that these tumultuous times have impacted our customers in different ways. Some of you are busier than you have ever been, while others have felt the pain of shifting demand patterns. Regardless of your circumstances, we are here for you as a trusted partner, working closely together and living by our values of Trust, Serving, Simplicity and Safety. Our vision, mission and values provide a strong foundation to enable us to serve you best.”
“We have activated several of our contingency plans to help ensure the safety of our people and products and provide supply assurance to our customers,” Dye said. “This includes additional cleaning and sanitation procedures, eliminating all domestic and international travel, heightened visitor protocols at our facilities, implementing social distancing practices and adopting shift flexibility.”
In a Nov. 4 update, the USDA attaché in Canada said that “when averaged across marketing year 2019-20, the COVID-19 pandemic did not contribute to a significant change in the quantity of wheat milled in Canada.”
“Increased household purchases of flour and products made from flour and semolina is estimated to have helped offset the decline in restaurant usage in the first three months of the pandemic, until panic buying ceased.”
FAS/Ottawa estimates that short-term heightened purchases of wheat products at grocery stores equated to a 1% increase in per capita consumption of flour and processed wheat products March through May, the FAS said.
“While data is not yet available, anecdotal evidence suggests that household consumption settled closer to pre-COVID levels in the final two months of the marketing year,” the FAS said. “Industry sources have shared that, in March through May, Canada’s flour mills and large bakeries ran around the clock to meet increased demand. The three largest milling companies in Canada grind 90% of domestically produced flour and were operating at capacity.
“Sources indicate this large and rapid increase in demand put stress on flour production capacity, packaging capacity, transportation capacity, and warehousing capacity. However, supply chains were maintained, and grocery shelves continued to be stocked.”
The attaché’s annual report on the sector, dated May 1, 2020, explained that “government-imposed self-isolation measures introduced to manage the spread of COVID-19 have driven households to increase purchases of products such as pastas, flour, cereal and crackers.”
“Responding to the initial impact of the pandemic, consumers began stocking up on shelf-stable foods and, as the economic impact began to be felt, consumers shifted buying habits toward cheaper grain products,” the attaché said. “Nielsen figures show flour sales at grocery stores spiked 252%, in value terms, during the week ending March 21, 2020, compared to the previous week. The week ending March 21, 2020, marked the first week of stay-at-home measures.”
The USDA attaché in Mexico, in an update on the sector dated July 10, 2020, said industry contacts reported that during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the wheat sector worked to ensure the supply of wheat and flour by purchasing a two-month inventory of wheat.
“They then distributed those inventories into customers’ warehouses to ensure a steady supply,” the report said. “As a result, the wheat industry had higher-than-normal production during the months of March, April and May, which typically has lower seasonal consumption. They also increased the supply of smaller package sizes of flour to meet the greater demand for home consumption during the stay-at-home restrictions.”
An earlier (March 12) attaché report on Mexico forecasts growth of around 1.4% in human, seed and industrial use of wheat in 2020-21, mainly because of population growth. However, bread consumption longer term has been affected by advertising campaigns advocating a lower calorie intake.
“Continued declines are also possible, as the government and public health organizations launch new campaigns to fight obesity and diabetes,” the report said. “At the same time, new labeling regulations that could be in place by the end of 2020 could also discourage the consumption of pre-packaged bread products. The new labeling regulation includes ‘Front of Pack Warning Signs’ i.e. black labels on food and beverages warning that products contain ‘too much sugar,’ ‘too much fat,’ or ‘too many calories’).”
Feed consumption of wheat is expected to continue to fall because of its relatively high cost compared with alternatives such as maize.
“New products perceived as being healthier than traditional alternatives continue to make headway in Mexico,” the attaché said. “For example, consumption of whole grain and organic baked goods continues to rise.”
“Though these types of products are fairly niche and geographically limited to the major cities, they do represent one of the fastest-growing subsectors of consumption,” the report said, citing data from the National Chamber of the Wheat Mill Industry (CANIMOLT), putting wheat consumption at 53.9 kg per person per year, making it the second most important grain in the diet of Mexicans.
“Corn accounts for a large share of the population’s caloric intake and is used to make tortillas and other corn-based foods, a practice that dates back thousands of years,” the attaché said. “For this reason, corn is primarily considered a food grain rather than a feed grain.
“Mexico is considered the world’s leading consumer of corn for human consumption. According to a recent report of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, corn represents 30% of the protein and 40% of the energy in the diet of Mexicans with a per capita consumption of 297 kg/year.”
Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European correspondent. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org