by Peter Parker, General Manager, Milling and Grain Oceania, New Zealand

 

Over 200 countries and territories around the world are affected by COVID-19. While all are fighting the virus, each country is faced with its own unique challenges.

New Zealand, an island nation of just five million people with thousands of kilometres of ocean isolating us from the nearest neighbouring countries has the fortunate opportunity to not only 'flatten the curve' but to potentially 'squash out' COVID-19 entirely.

With the assistance from Paul Fahy, Technical and Project Manager of Champion Flour Milling Ltd and Chairman of New Zealand Flour Millers Association (NZFMA), this article explores the steps taken as a nation to relieve lockdown conditions safely (on April 27th, 2020) so the country can begin to relax restrictions, as well as outlining an inspiring story of how a domestic flour industry has managed to keep consumers supplied with that essential ingredient, flour.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her New Zealand government have received global praise in the past year for: a fast law reform to ban semi-automatic weapons in response to the Christchurch mosque terrorist attack; the volcanic eruption of White Island and now a relatively successful response to COVID-19.

Prime Minister Ardern's strategy for COVID-19 from the outset has been to respond hard and early with an emphasis on testing, restricting physical interaction and minimising the movement of people and transparency of information.

On February 3rd, 2020 restrictions were put in place banning foreign nationals who had travelled through or from mainland China, and all people entering the country had to self-isolate for two weeks.

On February 28th, 2020 New Zealand reported its first case of COVID-19 from overseas travel. A few days after two suspected cases of community transmission the country moved into alert Level 4 and the entire nation went into self-isolation.

'We have a window of opportunity to stay home, break the chain of transmission and save lives,' said Prime Minister Ardern. 'It's that simple.'

While most of the country are staying at home, united under the lockdown order, essential workers continue to work hard for us, this includes those that provide the necessities of life, meaning food, medicine, healthcare, energy, fuel, waste-removal, internet and financial support would continue to be available.'

Getting flour to the people during unusual times

The New Zealand Flour Millers Associationt (NZFMA) comprises of four flour milling organisations with mills located on both the North and South Islands; Champion Flour Milling Ltd (three mills), Mauri ANZ (three mills), NZ Flour Mills Ltd and Farmers Mill.

The New Zealand Flour Milling industry was de-regulated in 1987 with New Zealand continuing to operate in a free market trade relationship with countries.

'New Zealand Flour Mills typically supply approximately 260,000 tonnes of flour per year to the needs of various New Zealand Food Manufacturers such as plant bakeries, hot bread shops, in-store supermarket bakeries, retail domestic use, quick service food industry, wholesale distributors and other food manufacturers for use in confectionary and pasta products,' said Mr Fahy, Manufacturing Manager of Champion Flour Milling Ltd and Chairman of New Zealand Flour Milling Association

As the number of COVID-19 cases increased many Kiwis took to panic buying regardless of the government stating normal shopping would maintain sufficient supplies.

Naturally, flour became a hugely sought-after item in supermarkets, it seemed as though, often when visiting the supermarket, with shoppers swooping in and pick up flour while staff were restocking shelves.

'The flour industry has been working overtime to supply what we, the NZFMA, have estimated to be a 90 percent increase in retail flour demand,' said Mr Fahy.

'New Zealand flour mills are still experiencing strong demand across most market segments, for example plant bakeries, in-store supermarket bakeries, home-bake small packs. This has meant running flour mills and packing 24/7.

'Staff at mills have done a great job in meeting the challenges around running and maintaining plant in to ensure production meets demand.'

Some supermarkets have taken to purchasing the more readily available 20kg sacks of flour and re-packaging them into smaller clear plastic bags (with required labels present). A great example of how ingenuity is taking place in all parts of the supply chain to meet the demands of the people during this unique period.

In its fourth week of lockdown New Zealand flour mills 'are still working hard to supply all market segment requirements. Supermarket small pack flour demand for home use stock is slowly recovering and may take more time to satisfy demand,' said Mr Fahy.

'As other market segments for example, quick restaurant service, start to re-open when Level 3 starts on April 27th, 2020 - limited to take-away capacity only - we will see demand for flour rise in these market segments. As there is still a significant portion of the population staying at home during Level 3 demand for bread and flour will remain strong.'

Mr Fahy explained that the NZFMA compiled letters for employees of flour mills detailing that the employee is an 'essential worker' so to allow them a safe travel passage to-and-from work when engaging with police stops. The wider transport industry has done a great job in supporting and fulfilling logistic requirements for delivery of packed flour to customers.

Wheat supply, not an issue

New Zealand has two main islands. Mills located in the South Islands predominantly mill locally grown wheat and recent harvesting provided favourable results which has ensured good stocks of wheat.

North Island mills however mostly import their wheat from Australia, which is sourced mostly in bulk shipment or in 20-foot containers. Australia's last wheat harvest tonnage was lower than forecast due to drought conditions, however the relatively small volume required by New Zealand mills has generally not been an issue.

Working safely during COVID-19

According to Mr Fahy throughout the lockdown mills introduced measures in the form of daily health checks, such as ensuring employee's temperature is within acceptable limits before commencing shifts.

The number of staff allowed on site during the day (including admin staff) has been reduced and working from home has assisted in reducing close contact between staff.

Other measures introduced include extensive hand sanitation procedure, frequent-thorough hygiene and deep cleansing programmes, increase in hand sanitising stations and wearing of PPE such as masks and gloves.

Mr Fahy expressed that of all market segments which have proved challenging for flour mills to maintain stock levels, home-bake (retail) flour for domestic use has been the most difficult.

'We are at day 23 into our lockdown period and still supermarket shelves are depleted of home-bake flour and bakery mix's disappear as soon as they are placed on shelves.

'We anticipate that it will take some time after the lockdown period has been completed before stocks are back to normal levels.

'As a nation we remain strong in 'staying the course' as directed by our Government to beat this invisible enemy – as an industry we are united in our efforts to ensure we are doing our bit as an essential food industry in keeping New Zealanders fed. Kia kaha, stay strong,' Mr Fahy concluded.

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