No single ingredient affects the quality and success of baked foods more than flour. After all, it generally makes up 55 to 60% of the product on a formula weight basis. Good flour yields good bread — and buns and cakes and cookies and crackers.

From the baker’s standpoint, the most important question about flour as an ingredient concerns its consistent performance. Every bag, every load, every shipment must bake the same as the previous one. The wheat milled into flour is an agricultural product and subject to the vagaries of the natural world.

A closer look at flour reveals complex interactions between formulator, baker, buyer and miller. Such relationships go beyond flour’s baking performance yet bear significantly on its role as the baker’s chief ingredient.

Transitions and specs

Managing the details has been part of flour’s path to market for as long as there have been farmers, millers and bakers. Typical performance specifications involve direct measurements of moisture, ash and protein composition as well as enzyme activity (by Falling Number) and the flour’s mixing tolerance (by Farinograph). Some bakers ask for particle size and rheological values.

“No two customers seem to focus on exactly the same analytical needs,” said Brian Walker, technical service manager, Horizon Milling, Wayzata, MN.

Customers typically provide their own specifications, according to Dave Braun, vice-president of sales, The Mennel Milling Co., Fostoria, OH. “But we will help guide them to make sure the mill can consistently meet these specs. Testing requirements are dictated by the customer, and it varies with each of them.”

Because crop conditions differ year to year, flour’s levels of protein and ash, as well as its rheological properties, can change. “It is important for customers to recognize there is variation in the raw material, the process, sampling and analytical analysis,” said Jennifer Robinson, vice-president of corporate quality assurance, Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, MA. “Whenever possible, they should allow tolerance for variation.” It’s the quality of the finished product that’s important.

Some customers don’t change specs and expect their flour to arrive with the same numbers year in, year out. “When crop conditions require, we will bring in what we can to keep the flour constant for these users,” Mr. Walker explained. “The other type of customer bases his specs on the crop average, and we will work to come up with the most meaningful numbers for that year’s crop.”

Erin VanCamp, manager of product development and regulatory, ADM Milling Co., Shawnee Mission, KS, said, “We advise customers to work closely with their suppliers to determine the specification parameters each crop year so both parties clearly understand expectations for that year.”

Harold Ward, manager, technical services, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE, emphasized bake testing as well.

Setting those parameters each year requires careful collaboration. Only after thorough evaluation at lab, mill and bakery will a given year’s specs coalesce. The discussion, however, starts well before harvest.

“For example, we held a conference call this week with a customer to discuss 2012 (crop) conditions,” Mr. Walker said in mid-April. Horizon, like other millers, gathers information from observers of farmers’ fields and pre-harvest samples.

The key is communicating the transition and its timing, thus giving the baking industry indicators of what will be different in protein and test results. During those critical weeks of transition, performance is closely watched; the miller fine-tunes his process, and the baker adjusts formulation and fermentation. “We don’t want to write the specs until the flour is performing to expectation, until everyone is satisfied with results,” Mr. Walker said. “Only then can we put numbers around the crop.”

Farm-to-fork network

Because flour is critical to successful production of baked foods, mills have strong customer service programs in place. “In most instances, customer service is handled locally by our mills,” said Kent Lyman, director of sales, ADM Milling. “Everyone is trying to be more efficient in production, and having a flexible flour supplier allows the bakery more flexibility.”

Besides turning grain into flour, Jeff Zyskowski, vice-president and commercial leader at Horizon Milling, defined the miller’s supply chain responsibilities as four essential activities: managing transportation modes, ensuring continuity of deliveries, dedicating customer service and forecasting demand. Transportation, for example, could be by truck or rail or a combination of both, but the selection must be reliable, appropriate and least cost, he emphasized.

With multigrain and gluten-free products gaining ground, many bakers must manage flours made from non-wheat sources, too. Millers are stepping up to the challenge. “Bay State Milling’s product offerings span conventional and organic flours, specialty flours, grain blends and gluten-free products from a single integrated milling company,” said Doug DeWitt, vice-president of customer and business development for the company. Such custom ingredient consolidation simplifies farm-to-fork logistics by reducing the costs of transportation and managing multiple suppliers.

Contingency planning must get front-and-center attention. Whether severe storms, local problems or regularly planned downtime takes a mill out of commission, nobody likes supply interruptions. “We work closely with customers prior to such events,” Mr. Zyskowski said. “It’s a big advantage for Horizon to have a large national footprint with multiple mills in case a change of source is required.”

For example, early forecasts warned of the high likelihood for severe weather during a mid-April weekend this year. Indeed, strong winds and powerful storms spawned more than 100 tornadoes across the Midwest. “With today’s advances in weather forecasting, we could anticipate conditions 24 to 48 hours in advance,” Mr. Zyskowski said.

Armed with input from the company’s sales, tech service, transportation and supply chain groups, the miller can develop contingency plans for such events as well as for hurricane season, which lasts June 1 to Nov. 30 along the East Coast.

Tracking and food safety

Although the Certificate of Analysis has been part of flour supply activities for many years, traceability needs are relatively new. Under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, all food processors in the US are required to document “one step backward and one step forward” within a day’s notification from regulatory agencies.

“All our products are fully traceable,” Ms. VanCamp said. Traceability covers order number, truck ID and shipment date for the flour delivery — the one step forward — as well as source information for the grain from which it was milled — the one step backward.

Also involved are Good Hygiene Practices, a part of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standards for Food Safety. “This discipline requires traceability throughout the process from the wheat supplier to the miller to the bakery,” Mr. Zyskowski explained. Monthly internal audits at all Horizon facilities as well as mock recalls back up these practices.

Kent Juliot, ConAgra Mill’s senior director of quality, reported that each of the company’s 23 mills has attained BRC certification and explained other measures. “We’ve improved our lab information systems with SAP, which lets us follow our product from the elevator through milling, blending and to our customers’ door,” he said.

With food safety taking center stage in this post-9/11 era, millers are stepping up security matters. “For example,” said Neil Hartzell, director of transportation at ConAgra Mills, “we work with our shipping partners to institute seal and capacity utilization programs, which improve the food safety and efficiency of our inbound wheat.” The company put in place similar measures for outbound products.

As supply chains grow in complexity, food safety becomes more important, hence the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA).

At February’s annual meeting of the Wheat Quality Council, Jan Levenhagen, Mennel Milling’s director of food safety, security and regulatory, explained that some parts of FSMA are effective immediately.

Millers speculate about how bulk flour might be covered by FSMA regulations. “I am not sure the food safety act affects a flour customer’s record-keeping practices any differently than before,” Mr. Braun said. “There really is no difference between bag or bulk flour, just the way it’s delivered.”

“At the end of the day, FSMA provides challenges and opportunities for flour users,” Ms. Robinson observed. “The increase in accurate documentation is a challenge, but it also provides an open window into their supplier’s practices and allows them to select a vendor based on their documented track record for safety and quality.”