MEET THE NEGOTIATOR

20 January, 2006
Federation of Bakers director Gordon Polson tells Anne Bruce what he has achieved in his six months in the job and why he finds lobbying fun
Page 12 
Mr Polson, who was born in Glasgow, now lives in a village in north Oxfordshire with his wife and two children -– girls aged nine and 13.
He has worked in trade associations for 20 years and has had positions with the British Amusement Catering Trades Association, the British Insurance Brokers Association, National Association of Steel Stockholders, the Federation of Ophthalmic & Dispensing Opticians and the Aluminium Federation.He is an active member of his village’s parish council – speed limits through the village are a current political concern. He enjoys sports including golf, ‘spinning’ on a stationary bicycle and ski-ing.To hear Gordon Polson talk about plant baking issues, you would hardly think that six months ago his only connection with the bread industry was as a consumer.The Glaswegian has clearly been a conscientious student as he establishes himself in his new role as director of the Federation of Bakers (FoB) following his appointment in September 2005.Promoting the interests of an industry with retail sales of £3bn, which employs 20,000 people and supplies 80% of the nation’s bread is no mean feat.But Mr Polson seems to have got to grips with the FoB’s nine members’ issues, ranging from Tesco’s bread basket project to the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) various health initiatives, such as its salt reduction strategy.It helps that Mr Polson, who was in the past director general of the National Association of Steel Sockholders, has years of experience running trade associations on his CV.It shows in many ways, for example the understanding that trade bodies need to pull together. The FoB will be working closely with the Flour Advisory Bureau in 2006 on public relations promoting the Vitality Eating System, which is a guide to a healthy diet.Mr Polson’s career has also given him experience of the machinations of European Union politics. This stood him in good stead in one of the early challenges of his role – lobbying MEPs on European prescribed bread weight legislation.Bread weightsMr Polson is pleased to report positive signs on the EU Nominal Quantities Directive. On December 12, a European Commission committee voted in favour of retaining national bread weight legislation.This would allow the UK to keep its system of selling bread above 300g in weight in prescribed quantities – 400g, 800g and 1,200g loaves. New weights, for example 600g or 1,000g, could also be added.The plant baking industry wants the original weights to be retained to prevent unscrupulous bakers passing off lighter loaves, for example selling a 700g loaf for the price of an 800g one.Following an EU Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee vote, the issue will now go forward to the European Parliament for debate, with a vote expected to take place this month or in February.The debate will then be passed onto the European Council of Ministers, in a process which is expected to take a year to 18 months.Mr Polson comments: “It will be a long process, it is difficult to predict how long it will take to resolve. With the UK relinquishing its presidency of the EU, the new Austrian presidency may decide it is not important and turn its attention to other issues.”Mr Polson knows there will be months of lobbying ahead as the draft legislation makes its progress through the European legislative system, and seems unphased by the bureaucracy. In fact he says “lobbying is quite good fun”.He continues: “You have to keep on top of what lobbying is happening behind the scenes. We have to keep our arguments in MEPs minds, go to Brussels and sit with MEPs in their offices. It is important to keep them up to speed with issues.“The timing has to be right. You have to remind them what the position is before the debate takes place, speak to the whips and the key MEPs. You need to get position papers out, and speak to civil servants to make sure you hear things from all angles.”It sounds like Mr Polson will continue to familiarise himself with the British Airways timetable to Brussels over 2006 as the FoB keeps up the pressure on the issue, working with other bakery bodies, such as the National Association of Master Bakers.Salt contentCloser to home, the FSA has plenty to keep Mr Polson occupied. He rattles off a list of issues that the FoB is currently in consultation over, including front-of-pack labelling, salt and folic acid. “We keep going on all those issues”, he says.The FoB recently pledged to publish details of average salt content in plant loaves, as part of a proposed programme of salt reduction.Members have agreed, in principle, to submit up-to-date recipe data so the FoB can establish average salt contents for white, brown and wholemeal bread. These could then be reduced by 5% within two years, and by another 5%by 2010.The FoB has also proposed setting a maximum threshold for salt in bread – of 0.6g per 100g – within 12 months. That will be reduced to 0.54g per 100g within two years. By 2010, its members have pledged to reduce salt to 0.5g per 100g, subject to agreement from the FSA. And members’ bread packaging will list salt content per slice and per 100g, instead of sodium.The proposals would ensure that salt content in the saltiest breads is reduced at a greater pace than average breads, Mr Polson says.He comments: “I do not think that anybody is going to say, ‘I am against looking at what can be done on salt reduction’. But it has to be done in a way which is achievable. There has to be a balance. If anyone suggests a level and a date there has to be flexibility.”Mr Polson says informal discussions on the proposals with the FSA, which originally suggested a target of 0.4g of salt per 100g, are positive. He comments: “We had a brief informal discussion with the FSA, but no formal response yet. It is distilling the 70 responses it got to the salt consultation. It acknowledged the advantage of using maximum and average figures on reducing salt in terms of technology and consumer acceptance.”Cleary the FoB isn’t headed towards a brawl with the FSA on this issue – Mr Polson is taking a sensible approach. He adds: “We would hope that the government and the FSA could look at the bigger issues of people’s health in general rather than just targeting the food industry all the time.”Folic acidMeanwhile, Mr Polson is preparing for a debate on mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid. He wants to make sure that if this goes ahead millers fortify at the flour stage.The FSA held an exploratory meeting on the issue before Christmas, and will start a consultation in February. Again, timescales cannot be predicted, it could be 2007 before a decision is made. He comments: “Our position is that a decision about mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid has to be a medical decision that the government takes. If it is going to be mandatory then it should be flour that is fortified.”He is also keeping one eye on the situation in Ireland, where a committee is considering submissions from the public consultations on fortification with folic acid. The committee is debating the nitty gritty issues like how much folic should be added to foods and who will pay the costs, estimated to be hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.It meets again in February to finalise its recomendations, which will then be sent to the Irish Minister for Health, who will then decide whether or not to introduce voluntary ormandatory fortification.Bread basketsAnother issue which is occupying the FoB is the roll out of standard-sized breadbaskets with Tesco, which it is overseeing through sub-committees and a steering group.After hard negotion with major plant suppliers, Tesco started its trial of a one-size-fits-all 10-loaf plastic bread basket at larger stores in October 2004.The trial was extended in the autumn to cover over 130 larger Tesco stores. The baskets can be stacked ten high and then wheeled onto the shop floor. The stack is used as a roll-in merchadising unit or baskets can be locked into place on specially designed shelving.Plant bakers are footing the cost of the new baskets and the changes to their handling processes required to accommodate them – a considerable expense.Mr Polson says: “The cost is different in every bakery. Different bakeries have different operations and types of customer. Some may do 5% of their trade with Tesco, so they deal with those orders in a different way from the bulk of their orders, rather than changing the whole operation and investing several million in changing the handling of the baskets.”At the moment, the relationship between FoB members and Tesco is exclusive, although that period of exclusivity is coming to an end. After that, other supermarkets may choose to adopt the same baskets, leading the way towards an industry standard bread basket, rather than the current range of sizes used by plant bakers.Tesco is using the baskets as a point-of-sale solution, but other supermarkets will make their own decisions on them, Mr Polson says.He adds: “Only Tesco uses them at the moment, but the new breadbasket could be an advantage as an industry standard in years to come, but probably not in 2006. Where we might be in 12 months or three or four years is very interesting. Will there be one basket which everyone is using, not just Tesco?”And the consequences could be even more far reaching, if combined with reform on other supply chain issues.LogisticsConsumers forget how much the plant baking industry is involved in logistics, saysMr Polson. It is a side of the baking industry which impressed him immensely when he joined the FoB. He comments: “Every industry has its hidden gems. The plant baking industry produces and distributes 9m loaves a day, and customers just take it for granted. It’s amazing when you think about it.”At the moment rival plant bakers distribute loaves using their own vehicles, which turn up at supermarket back doors, often causing congestion.Increasingly, supermarkets are asking plant bakers to look at ways of streamlining deliveries, perhaps by collaborating more with each other. It is a challenge which will need to be addressed by the FoB.Mr Polson comments: “Wouldn’t it be fantastic for the supermarkets if one lorry turned up with all their bread from the different suppliers, already in baskets and ready to go onto the shopfloor?”That may be lateral thinking, but with enthusiasm from the likes of Tesco for reform of the bread distribution network it may not beso unlikely.ConsolidationThe next few years will be interesting for the plant baking industry, as supermarket operations become ever slicker. The manufacturing base is also changing as the saga New Rathbones draws to an end and in many other changes in the businesses of FoB members. For example, Warburtons is challenging Allied Bakeries and RHM Bread Bakeries for national dominance.Mr Polson is positive about the future, and prosaic about the recent round of problems at Harvestime (2005). He says: “It is a commercial world and commercial things come and go. You could have argued that maybe there was a bakery or two too many, so I don’t think it will have a negative impact on the market."A bright futureMr Polson says the days of economy bread are over. “I’m very optimistic for the coming year. I think plant bakers are continuing to innovate in premium products. The consumer gets fantastic choice and the bakeries do well out of them, as do the supermarkets.”The FoB will shortly start working on a campaign promoting the value of bread, in collaboration with the Flour Advisory Bureau. It is also looking forward to its conference on May 10, where speakers will include horticulture minister Lord Bach.The FoB’s members will be reassured their new director has settled in so quickly and appears to be shaping up as a straight-A student. They waited longer than expected for a permanent replacement for their former director John White, who left in February 2005.Mr Polson says he believes it is important their voices be heard, and the signs are that the volume will be turned up in 2006.The FoB conference takes place in London on May 10. For more details call 0207 420 7190 or go to www.bakersfederation.org.uk



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