The Irish Association of Master Bakers’ conference, which represents both the plant and craft sectors, takes place every two years. It reviews what changes have taken place and predicts what may lie ahead.

While one area of concern was the repeal of the Groceries Order six months ago, which no longer prohibits below-cost selling, the conference also considered the rise in manufacturing costs, the image of bread in the national media, consumer issues such as health and the need to train more bakers, among other matters.

The conference concluded with a ’brainstorming’ session on how to raise the image of bread. Suggestions included better lobbying,, more effective packaging, and a levy to fund generic advertising.The session was the idea of incoming president Patrick Smyth and was chaired by Terry O’Neill, a consultant with the Skillnet training programme. He will be putting the suggestions together shortly in order to come up with a plan on how to move forward. (This will be published in British Baker.)

As well as image, issues tackled by the brainstorm included declining sales, rationalisation and closures, the threat of imports, the 13.5% VAT applied to baked goods in the Republic and the need to increase candidates in the area of craft training.

== Rising costs ==

Eoghan O’Mahony of the Irish Bread Bakers Association secretariat said that following the repeal of the Groceries Order, Food and Drink Industry Ireland had drafted a submission from a supplier’s perspective to highlight areas that need further investigation with regard to prices.

These include the effects of concentrated retailer buying power and the increase in manufacturing costs at a time of deflationary pricing, global competition and increasing regulations. He said: "What is needed is a rigorous price formation model which captures movements in costs and margins across the value chain."

O’Mahony added that a relentless increase in business and regulatory costs coupled with poor harvests in various parts of the world had dramatically increased the cost of raw materials.

Bakers in the Republic are experiencing increases of up to 20% in the cost of flour and increases of over 30% in the cost of gas, the main energy source. Recent price increases in bread had not always resulted in profit increases.

Over the past two years a number of bakeries had either closed or significantly rationalised their businesses. Failure to recoup the serious cost increases would inevitably lead to further rationalisation and job losses, he said.

== Consumer issues ==

Consumers are busier than ever with changing work patterns, increased female participation in the workforce and more time spent on travel. This has led to a polarisation in consumer choice, said O’Mahony. The polarisation is between ’value and premium’, ’healthy and indulgence’ and ’convenience and experience’.

This has presented the Irish bread industry with both challenges and opportunities. Bakers are having to invest more resources into product development to cater for variety, convenience and healthy options.

== Salt issue ==

In 2004, the Food Standards Agency Ireland said bread was the biggest contributor of salt to people’s diets and called for a reduction.

Since then the Irish Bread Bakers Association has set and achieved a maximum sodium level of 0.45g (salt 1.35g) per 100g in standard white and brown pan products. But the Association has not committed to the July phase of salt reduction because of what it describes as "justifiable reasons".

Namely there is a need to reduce salt in own-label bread to match those achieved by the Association. On average, the Irish Bread Bakers Association as a group had achieved 0.42 per 100g.

Consultations are still takingplace about the addition of folic acid to flour.

== Northern Ireland ==

The Northern Ireland Bakery Council has experienced much change in the past 10 years, Brian Irwin of Irwin’s plant bakery told delegates. As a result, the Council now has just three members: Allied Bakeries Ireland, British Bakeries Ireland, and Irwin’s Bakery.

Each member of the council has successfully embarked on a strategy of ’innovation for export’, which has meant security and modest growth in employment.

Energy prices in the North of Ireland have traditionally been higher than the rest of Britain or Ireland so the government introduced a scheme of zero industrial rates. However, it has now declared the industry will pay full industrial rates on a phased basis from 2005 through to 2011.

The effect of this, coupled with recent energy price increases, has been to further erode margins. Extensive lobbying is taking place in an attempt to cap these rates at 25%.


The Flour Confectioners and Bakers Association has among its key aims to support and aid regeneration of craft bakeries, to maximise the Irish Skillnet/Accel work-based training programme and to showcase Irish bakery products at EU-funded international festivals, Patrick Garvey told conference. He is both secretary to the craft association and project manager for Skillnet/Accel.

Since 1999, when Skillnet was introduced, close to 80 bakeries have received training and taken exams. The most popular courses are Craft Bread and Confectionery, and Bread Processing.

== lobbying power ==

At international level the Association had developed a close relationship with the Union International de Boulangerie, which includes bakery associations from over 50 countries, said Garvey.

This places the association in a "much stronger position to lobby against EU legislation not in its favour. There is also a student exchange arrangement between member associations and other interesting developments such as a global standard certification for craft bakers and confectioners".

Garvey thanked Yeast Products and RHM Ireland for funding a poster to celebrate World Bread Day; the poster was used extensively in craft premises in Ireland.

l Patrick Smyth, MD of Yeast Products, a part of ABF, was made president of the Irish Association of Master Bakers and will serve for two years. Jim Hyland, MD of Brennans, was made president elect.

The Irish Association of Master Bakers is comprised of the Northern Ireland Bakery Council, the Irish Bread Bakers Association and the Flour Confectioners and Bakers Association.