Flour processors set quality expectations

Ground Cover writer Catherine Norwood looks at the changing wheat market in Malaysia as part of her series investigating South-East Asia’s emergence as a dominant grains market

Photo of woman taking bread out of an oven

Test baking is carried out in the Prestasi Flour Mill’s food laboratory.

PHOTOS: Catherine Norwood 

In Malaysia, institutional customers are the dominant flour users – multinational players who expect the same levels of quality assurance and food safety in South-East Asia as they do elsewhere in the world.

That’s good news for the bigger millers, such as Interflour Group, Malayan Flour Mill and Federal Flour Mills, which are well-placed to meet stringent quality requirements and to customise flours for corporate customers.

While smaller millers and food processors have found it difficult to adapt to higher quality requirements, the larger players have gone from strength to strength.

And unlike other countries where new entrants are entering the milling industry to take advantage of projected growth in flour demand, in Malaysia the growth in capacity has come from existing players expanding. This includes Interflour, which operates four mills in the country.

Malaysia is a much smaller market for Australian wheat than Indonesia. Sales in 2013 to Malaysia (population 30 million) amounted to 1.5 million tonnes, compared with 7.2 million tonnes to Indonesia (population 250 million). But the milling and market requirements there are as sophisticated as any other market in the world, according to Elmar Nau, general manager of the Interflour Group’s largest Malaysian facility, the Prestasi Flour Mill at Port Klang, east of Kuala Lumpur.

"It is important for us to know that the grain that arrives here is tested and is safe and clean"

- Elmar Nau

He says large institutional customers such as Gardenia, Kraft and Nestlé dominate the processing and consumer markets. They have highly controlled production processes and increasingly high demands for quality, food safety and traceability. This includes a requirement that flour is independently tested for chemical residues.

“That is one of the big advantages of Australian wheat – you can trace the wheat almost onto the farm,” Mr Nau says. “It is important for us to know that the grain that arrives here is tested and is safe and clean.”

Mr Nau says Prestasi works closely with customers to produce flours that meet their specific needs and now has more than 60 standard products. When the mill opened 15 years ago it produced only two different flours.

The growth in the flour product range reflects the growing diversity in end uses, currently driven by growth in the bread categories, particularly sliced white bread and sweet buns. These make greater use of higher-rising Canadian and US hard wheat, rather than Australian wheat flours. Health products such as multigrain and wholemeal breads are also an emerging market segment.

Research and development has been an important part of improving performance for all the Interflour mills and markets. The most recent product development is a roti-canai premix, branded as ‘I-Mix’ (just add water), for both home and commercial use. This product alone has taken researchers more than a year to perfect.

Other new products in the pipeline include premium muffin, cake and self-raising flour premixes. While the price of general-purpose flour for domestic use is still subject to government controls as a basic food product, premix and other non-general-purpose flours are not price-controlled.

Interflour established its own research centre in Malaysia in 2005, based at the University of Putra Malaysia. The centre conducts both fundamental and applied research into grains and flour-based products, constantly looking for ways to make the milling process more efficient and improve flour qualities, as well as developing new products.

Wider range to tempt customers

The Roti Sedap Bakery in the Malaysian state of Selangor typifies the drive for growth and improved efficiency that smaller players need to compete in an industry dominated by four large corporate bakers – Gardenia, Massimo (the ‘Italian Baker’ brand), Mighty White and High-5. Smaller bakeries are disappearing and even some mid-sized bakeries are falling by the wayside. Roti Sedap is a mid-sized family business established in 1991 in the Klang district of Selangor, about 40 kilometres south-west of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. In the past 10 years it has more than doubled production and product range.

The business produces up to 70 different products and the range is constantly evolving, as some lines are discontinued and new ones are added. Roti Sedap manager Teh Kok Kuan says the company is constantly scanning the market to identify new product trends.

Photo of man shaping dough

Shaped dough is set aside for proofing before baking.

Increasing automation across the factory is a high priority. The business already uses automated mixers to prepare each of the five basic doughs it uses, but transferring the dough to moulding machines and through the proving, baking, filling and packaging processes is still done by hand. In larger bakeries this entire process is automated.

Roti Sedap operates seven days a week and 24 hours a day, with a staff of 100, and mostly receives bulk flour deliveries from stainless steel tankers, 25 or 30 tonnes at a time. Mid-sized businesses typically use 1500 to 3000t of flour a year, mainly delivered in 25-kilogram bags.

Crucial to the company’s operations is consistency in the quality of the flour because of the automated dough-mixing process. “Quality control and stable flour are important to maintain the consistent quality of our products and the performance of our recipes,” Mr Teh says.

Flour is the one constant in baking; sugar, fats and eggs are the variables, which change to produce different quality, shaped and textured breads and buns.

Roti Sedap’s customers are smaller supermarkets, mini-markets, schools and workplace canteens in urban areas. Mr Teh says it is important that the company keeps changing, to improve its ability to meet customers’ needs. Loaves of white sandwich bread remain the ‘evergreen’ product that underpins the business, but small, sweet cream-filled rolls or buns are part of the expanding product range.

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