PARIS, March 20 (Reuters) - France’s grain industry is scrambling to find enough trucks and staff to keep factories and ports running as panic buying of pasta and flour because of the coronavirus pandemic coincides with a surge in wheat exports.
The French government’s designation of the food sector as a strategic priority has helped pasta manufacturers, flour mills and grain exporters get through a first week of lockdown in France, home to the biggest grain industry in Europe.
But there are concerns the logistics required to keep the grain industry ticking over will become strained as the crisis continues and other areas of the economy grind to a halt, industry groups say.
“It’s requiring a great deal of acrobatics to supply factories and customers,” said Francois Cholat, president of SNIA, an association of manufacturers of livestock feed, which is made from cereals and oilseeds. “The logistics side is very complicated.”
SNIA’s members have reported a 20% to 30% rise in orders this week, reflecting both precautionary purchases by customers as well as the knock-on effect on the animal feed market after consumers started buying more meat, he said.
Increased demand and logistical constraints contributed to a rally in European wheat futures this week, with benchmark prices hitting a one-month high on Friday.
French supermarket sales of pasta, flour and rice last week were worth nearly three times the amount sold in the same week last year, market research firm Nielsen estimates.
French pasta makers have boosted output by about half to respond to the surge in demand for the durum wheat staple, according to industry association SIFPAF.
Grain group Soufflet also said demand from traditional bakeries for its flour more than doubled earlier this week as France moved towards a lockdown in which food stores were among the few outlets to stay open.
These different sectors of the grain industry expect demand to ease next week as stockpiling subsides but uncertainty over transport and staffing levels, along with a busy export programme, could create snags.
Soufflet said grain ports were operational and it was currently executing export orders as planned, with France on course for near-record wheat exports outside the European Union in the 2019-20 season.
But a winding down of broader economic activity has raised the problem of lorries returning empty after grain deliveries, and some feed makers have been forced to pay for the return trips, SNIA’s Cholat said.
In the export sector, some grain firms have struggled to find trucks to go to ports, Philippe Heusele, secretary general of wheat producers association AGPB, said.
The AGPB wants the government to include the grain sector in any requisitioning of transport to keep goods flowing. It is also seeking clarification of a French rule allowing workers to walk out over safety risks, to avert shortages of key staff. (Reporting by Gus Trompiz and Sybille de La Hamaide; Editing by David Clarke)