Don't disparage 'cheap' bread

24 August, 2007
Low price and high quality are not mutually exclusive, argues Peter Martin, who says that production of 'cheap' bread is, in fact, the result of greater efficiency
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The baking industry has been criticised for trying to make bread cheap.
On these pages, organic campaigner Andrew Whitley dismissed as "myth" that low price is compatible with quality. Elsewhere, Craig Sams, founder of Green & Blacks organic chocolate, has said that "the price we pay [for cheap bread] is irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac's disease and wheat and gluten allergies". Such views are the result of prejudice against the application of engineering and science to food production.Low price and high quality are not mutually exclusive. If you do not aspire to cheap mass production of quality foods, you will inevitably end up denying people access to the foods they want and need.I work as an academic chemical engineer, and much of my time is spent thinking about food processing, including bread baking. One of the historic roles of engineers has been to deliver things more cheaply, while maintaining - if not improving - quality. For example, mechanical engineers have helped to make transport faster and cheaper, allowing me to eat fresher and more varied vegetables than I could a decade ago. We should aim to continue doing the same in baking.The effects of inflation and changing incomes make it difficult to actually put a price on how much cheaper bread is today than in the past. US authors Michael Cox and Richard Alm overcame this in their 1999 study of relative affluence, Myths of rich and poor, using the basis that "the real price of whatever we buy is how long we have to work to earn the money for it". As such, they calculated that the average American work time required to buy a 1lb (450g) loaf of bread has decreased from 16 minutes in 1910 to 3.5 minutes in 1999.In principle, this means that we can all work that little bit less than our parents did and enjoy consuming just as much. Measuring efficiency in this way, as output per man per day, is a useful progress chart. Comparative cheapness has helped make food scarcity rare in most developed countries. Indeed, health problems are often associated with over-consumption of food, particularly refined foods. There has never been a golden age of food production. Before industrialisation, agriculture in Britain was at the mercy of nature, resulting in periodic famine. In Victorian cities, adulteration of flour with alum, to bolster loaf weight and make expensive flour go further, contributed to widespread malnutrition. Our current ability to produce bread cheaply, while meeting strict regulatory standards, should be celebrated.We can appreciate the qualities of labour-intensive 'artisan' bread, but this does not mean that we have to be disparaging about bread that has been produced efficiently. Standards of living and nutritional advances have seen the average height in the UK increase by three quarters of an inch each generation and the average life expectancy of a 65-year-old increase by four to five years over the past century. So long as hunger and starvation still afflict much of the world's population, producing cheap, quality food must remain a priority.? Peter Martin is a lecturer at the University of Manchester's School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science

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