Shoppers stocking up on staples have sparked an "unprecedented" demand for flour, the head of the Wheat Foods Council says.
"People are wanting flour — it's one of those items that when you go to the store, people are just scooping it up as quick as it comes in," said Tim O'Connor, president of the Littleton, Colo., organization, which promotes grains as part of a healthy diet. "It's just like toilet paper, soap and hand sanitizer. As quickly as it appears in stores, whoever happens to be there is scooping it up."
That's the case across the country, he said.
Demand exceeds historic volume during the Thanksgiving to Christmas timeframe, typically the time of the biggest demand for flour as people do their holiday baking, O'Connor said.
"What we're experiencing now is greater than that," he said.
Most of the volume flour millers handle does not go into consumer retail packaging, O'Connor said. It's done on a large scale for bakeries and other large customers.
He's talked with some of the larger flour milling companies, which are adjusting their production runs to produce more retail volume. One of the largest companies needs to find a larger supply of paper bags, he said.
"We have plenty of wheat; the world is sitting on surplus volumes of wheat," O'Connor said. "It isn't an issue of not enough wheat and not enough flour. We have milling capacity and we have wheat. It's a question of the hoarding and buying behavior we're seeing."
O'Connor believes customers view flour and baking as a comfort in a time of crisis. It's also a shelf-stable item.
"If you have it in your pantry, you can feel good that 'I can always bake something,'" he said.
Flour demand has steadily been dropping about 1% per year in recent years as consumer trends change, O'Connor said.
O'Connor said there's no way to predict what demand might look like in the future. He expects the trend may last several more weeks, or longer, as COVID-19 cases hit a peak.
"We have this volume of demand until we don't," he said.
Soft white wheat prices are currently $5.80 per bushel, said Dan Steiner, grain merchant for Morrow County Grain Growers in Boardman, Ore. Prices could reach $5.90 to $6 per bushel in the next month and a half, depending on how extreme virus measures become, he said. They could go as high as $6.20 to $6.30 per bushel if there's a storm in a wheat-producing area or the U.S. dollar weakens.
Hard red winter wheat ranged from $5.75 to $6.27 per bushel, dependent on protein level. Dark northern spring wheat ranged from $6.28 to $7.03 per bushel.
There could be a spike in demand at stores, Steiner said, but whether people actually increase their caloric intake enough to matter to the market remains to be seen.
If there's an increase in unemployment, customers might turn instead to inferior goods, items that people purchase more of when they have less money, such as a cup of noodle soup or a can of beans, he said, which could end up hurting grain usage.
"Our nation’s food supply and supply chain, including the flour milling industry, is very strong, and grain-millers will continue to work to supply our retail customers and consumers," said Christopher Clark, vice president of communications and administration for the North American Millers' Association.
The association's members are working with the White House Coronavirus Task Force and other companies to ensure a "consistent and reliable flow of safe, nutritious and affordable food," including flour, Clark said.