From bread weights to salt to carbon footprints, a special FOB panel, representing a cross-section of the industry, discussed the pros and cons for the bakery trade.

Chairman Sylvia Macdonald, edi-tor, British Baker [SM]: Should bread weights be deregulated?

Joe Street, managing director, Fine Lady Bakeries [JS]: I’m fairly ambivalent about it - what will be will be. Having said that, millers are concerned that deregulation of bread weights could lead to lower bread weights, which could, in turn, lead to a reduction in flour consumption in the UK.

Ian Bentley, trading executive, Marks & Spencer [IB]: A determinant should be the customer. What we should be doing is responding to what we see the customer wants. People are eating more varied diets within the same family. The idea that one size fits all is starting to go away. So that could militate towards deregulation and enable us to be selling products in pack sizes that customers want - rather than something that has been dictated.

The only counter-argument is that we don’t want to be conning people. If there were a sense that [deregulated bread weights] would lead to a bigger loaf, but with more air in it, then I don’t think that’s a direction we should go in.

Dr Andrew Wadge, chief scientist, Food Standards Agency [AW]: The FSA’s point of view would be making sure that consumers do actually get what they think they’re going to get. In other words, if it says it’s 400g then it really is 400g. But we have no particular attachments to what we see is an historical issue.

Professor Robert Pickard, director general, The British Nutrition Foundation [RP]: I don’t think it’s critical in nutritional terms; what does matter is that the consumer can rely on the weight of the product. What really matters is the nutritional value within the product.

SM: I’ve been told the FSA is setting up an experiment to ascertain the salt levels necessary in bread. If so, what kind of outcomes are the FSA looking at?

AW: I’m not aware of any particular experiment that’s being set up at the moment, but I am aware that discussions have been taking place around the technical issues of reducing salt in making bread - there is a particular performance problem with high-protein flours. It seems there is a need for research in this area to help in our overall goal in reducing salt intake.

We may be able to help by funding some research in this area in partnership with the baking industry. In terms of the outcome, it’s absolutely clear what we want, and that’s bread with lower levels of salt. Even though the actual levels of salt in bread are quite low, bread still accounts for around 17% of our salt intake, so we would encourage further reductions to build on the good work that’s already been done.

JS: The grave consideration is that it makes food exceptionally bland; there is also the concern that not all imported food has had salt reduced or that all food industries are being treated the same.

IB: We have been reducing the salt in our bread for some time. The RDA is 6g, which is not a lot of salt. But I would say bread is not the worst culprit by any means. There does need to be a threshold of flavour and taste that we need to be careful of. We don’t support a world of utterly bland food. We want to do the right thing, but first and foremost, food is a fantastic thing that should taste great.

RP: The taste sensation you get from salt is entirely relative. What determines the taste is not what you have on your tongue at the moment, it’s what you had on your tongue recently. That influences your perception. As long as a group of food companies moves together with similar and related products to reduce salt, then they should be able to take quite a lot of salt out of the diet and achieve quite significant public health benefits. Here, the various food associations have a specific role to play in coordinating the withdrawal of added salt.

SM: We’ve seen M&S make a stand about corporate social responsibility [CSR], and other supermarkets too. But without a common approach, won’t we just have the same chaos that we had over labelling with GDA nutrition labels for some and traffic lights for others? Are we in danger of not achieving what the consumer wants, which is meaningful progress towards sustainability and the reduction of impact on climate change?

IB: There has been confusion over traffic lights and labelling. I think we’re at an early stage of this level of consciousness [about sustainability]. I think things will shake out and consumers will become better informed. They will start to dictate the kind of information they want and we will respond to that. Over the years I have seen many attempts to create industry standards, industry marks and quality assurance schemes of one sort or another. I think they can work, but in my experience an awful lot of time will be spent arguing the toss about what the rules and regulations for adherence to the marks should be. That could be time better spent actually getting on with it and improving the quality.

JS: There was a study done on carbon footprints for a loaf of bread in the not-too-distant past and there was the suggestion that bread is in pretty good shape in that respect. I think bread doesn’t have anything like the level of carbon footprint as a lot of other foods.

RP: There is no doubt some companies pay lip service to CSR and don’t plan it in properly. No industry can really ignore the fact that it has the power to change our society and every individual has the moral responsibility to look after their fellow man. Every element of your company should have some aspect of social responsibility built into that individual department’s strategy.

There is still a huge debate in the scientific community about whether or not carbon dioxide emissions, for example, contribute to global warming or are a result of global warming, because of the increased productivity that occurs in plant life as the earth’s temperature rises. So, while we should guard against unnecessary waste, because the resources for life on this planet are very limited, the fact that we should go completely overboard in analysing everything that we do to achieve some rather theoretical end point - that’s highly debatable. A lot more deliberation will be necessary before we get farmers creeping out in the middle of the night to reduce the methane emissions of their cows! n


=== From the floor ===

l Christina Ramsay, Allied Technical Centre, on proposals to deregulate breadweights

Associated British Foods’ position is mainly to support the deregulation of prescribed quantities, because it allows a greater playing field for trading in Europe. It also provides greater consumer choice, and would give us a greater opportunity for listening to what the consumer actually wants.

l Chris Dabner, NA, on suggestions craft bakers aren’t complying with FSA salt reduction targets

It is up to our members to decide exactly what the salt levels are in their bread. But I would refer you to a study by Hertfordshire Trading Standards, which compared salt levels two to three years ago to salt levels a year ago in craft bread and there was a decrease. So I think you can say that the craft industry is cooperating with the aims of the FSA.

l Alex Waugh, NABIM, on pressures on UK wheat supply

Stocks are, relatively speaking, at the lowest levels they have ever been. So we’re delicately poised and the markets will respond dramatically to any shocks in terms of poor harvest or bad weather.

Whereas, in the past, we have seen price deflation over time, certainly in real terms, that is less likely to be so in the future and we’ll have to get used to that idea.