Of the total samples now taken, only 27 per cent of premium bread wheat would meet the necessary standards for bread making, compared to 52 per cent last year and an average over the last three years of 29 per cent.
The Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA), which is conducting the survey, said in a statement that other bread making wheat was also of a lower quality than in the last three years and that results were similar for wheat used to make biscuits.
The new results include 15,000 wheat samples taken from the second half of this year's harvest, many of them from the period of persistent rainfall which swept the country in late August.
And these have been added to disappointing statistics already released by the HGCA showing that quality in the drier, first half of the UK wheat harvest was also lower than the national three-year average.
This is of clear concern for the UK milling industry which annually uses around two-and-a-half million tons of home-grown wheat for bread making and about another million tons for other bakery products, such as biscuits and cakes.
The National Association of British and Irish Millers stated in its September economic review that the wettest August on record had done significant damage to the wheat crop, making the wheat "more susceptible to sprouting, lodging and disease, threatening its bread-making properties".
According to HGCA information analyst, Richard Somerscales, only 43 per cent of wheat used for biscuits would make the grade in 2004. "This compares with 90 per cent in 2003 and 69 per cent, on average, for the last three years. On a regional level, samples analysed from northern counties show only 16 per cent would meet the typical biscuit grade this year," he said.
HGCA economist, Julian Bell, told BakeryAndSnacks.com that "the UK will be importing more wheat this year and that will be more expensive. At the moment millers cannot source enough domestic wheat and premiums for good quality wheat have shot up."
Bread wheat was priced at around £86 (€126) per ton in July this year but has now risen to £98, he said, adding that any wheat shortage could be exacerbated by farmers holding on to their stocks to get a better price.
Some good news is that despite a drop in overall quality, wheat protein levels seem to be doing alright. Somerscales said that "protein averages have held firm for southern and eastern regions, remaining in line with more typical years, although across the Midlands and counties above the Humber, there have been downward revisions by up to one per cent".
The HGCA has now surveyed 22,000 wheat samples and will publish its final results for the 2004 harvest in mid-October. For results so far see the HGCA website.