The key players in the baking industry must form a coalition to change the public’s perception of the baking industry as "early starts, long hours and poor wages". That was the key message from champion surfer and international rugby coach - and MD of bakery supplier Rich Products in the UK - George Thomopoulos, who issued a rallying cry for a revival in craft baking, thus mounting more pressure on the industry to take further action to stem the training and recruitment crisis.

While hotel and restaurant pastry chefs often work longer shifts than bakers, they offer a more attractive career choice to young people, he said. The decline in craft skills must be addressed now, he urged. "In the UK we’ve evolved to making things like gas-flushed bread, frozen par-baked bread and thaw-and-serve - we’re all culprits because we’ve got to meet the demands of our custo-mers - but the basic skills of our craft continue to fade."

He argued that quality and craft in the UK had suffered tremendously compared with our European cousins, but recent imports to these shores, such as French bakery chain Paul, are showing what can be achieved with a bakery on the high street. "Paul is a very sophisticated, highly evolved, premium French boulangerie and patisserie and there are consumers out there who will pay [for the products]. Why aren’t we doing it ourselves in this country, encouraging the trade to build up to the level of those types of outlets?

"We need to create a strong and trusting partnership with a willingness from everyone to be able to take our craft to the next level. We would like to encourage the start of an open dialogue - the future lies in the hands of our youth. In that sense, we need a champion."

== flour fortification ==

Closer working within the industry and with the government was a theme that also ran through Federation of Bakers (FoB) director Gordon Polson’s address, with the possible fortification of flour with folic acid set to emerge as a real challenge to plant and craft bakers.

The danger is that bakers will be forced to make a product that risks alienating up to half of the population, he argued. "There are increasing concerns about the impact of folic acid," said Polson. "It is mandatory in the US and, more recently, it has been promulgated in Ireland and Australasia.

"But there is a good and a bad side to folic acid. It masks B12 vitamin deficiency in the elderly and could potentially bring on dormant cancer cells in some people. The FoB and the industry at large has to consider its policy on this, because if the government proposes mandatory fortification, we could be making a fortified product that 50% of the population doesn’t support. That would be unacceptable."

This year has been a "troubled year for the major wheat producing regions", said Rank Hovis’ sales and marketing director Jon Tanner. "The milling industry strives to manage the price volatility of raw material prices, in case there are further increases in the coming months," he added, although prices are set to "hold firm" in 2007.

The US crop was hit hard by near-desert conditions, resulting in a 15% reduction - amounting to a massive 30 million tonnes less wheat than 2005/6. Australia is "staring down the barrel of a harvest barely 50% that of last year," he added. Latest figures on world consumption show the lowest stocks-to-usage ratio since records began in 1960; historically, as ratios drop, wheat prices go up.

Speculative trading by large US hedge funds over the past few months, which have gambled on wheat commodities being undervalued, has further fuelled vola-tility in wheat pricing. "The effect has been that we’ve seen, and will continue to see, a 40% rise in world wheat values," he commented. Bakers’ flour has seen a year-on-year increase of £45 per tonne.

Meanwhile, the quality of this year’s wheat harvest was largely unchanged from last year except for higher Hagberg falling numbers, resulting from the early hot weather; availability of Group 1 and higher Group 2 will not be a major concern, said Tanner, as sufficient volumes had been harvested.

== energy prices ==

Businesses negotiating their energy contracts should take advantage of current gas prices because there is a real danger that, from 2010, prices will hike, advised Andrew Horstead of energy consultant Utilyx. Volatility in energy pricing is being fuelled by headline events in the Middle East - the price of oil determines gas prices - but new gas pipelines into the UK should increase UK supply of energy and more settled pricing in the short-term, he said.

"With new import facilities, we should have a gas glut in the UK for the next three years," said Horstead. "But the expected growth in international demand will soon turn that glut into a shortage.

"When you’re negotiating your contract, you need a long-term horizon of what’s going to happen in five to 10 years’ time - your decisions and energy strategies now will have a big impact."

Meanwhile, a mild winter is forecast, though energy markets remain cautious in case of a repeat of last year’s cold winter, with increasing demand inflating prices. n l Over the next two weeks we focus on why BSB speaker and Asda bakery supremo Huw Edwards wants to bring local products and organic to the forefront in-store, and why major sandwich manufacturer Buckingham Foods’ MD Nigel Hunter told the conference sandwich chain Subway poses little threat to UK bakers