Soaring ingredients prices have been one of the talking points of the baking industry this year. With global demand increasing and speculation pushing prices higher, securing a reliable supply route is more challenging than ever for bakers.

RM Curtis managing director Mark Setterfield, who has 20 years’ experience in ingredients sourcing, wants his business to be "front of mind" for anyone seeking a reliable source of fruits, nuts, pulses, seeds and spices. Curtis’ core business is sourcing and packing a wide range of dry ingredients, including nuts, dried fruit, spices and cereals for a variety of customers, from wholesale and foodservice to retail and food manufacture. It also offers consultancy on new product development and markets a range of branded products, such as Sunmagic, Eat Natural bars and snack range Snacking Essentials.

The 158-year-old business has traditionally focused on sourcing and packing ingredients for wholesale and foodservice customers. Today, this makes up around 40% of its total packing operation, with 30 staff at Halstead, Essex, sorting products into 1kg bags for major names including Brakes, Batleys, Makro and Nisa, to be sold on as own-label or under the Curtis brand. More recently, the business has branched out into supplying retailers and now packs for both Morrisons and Netto.

Bulk supply is a newer strand of its business, which has grown swiftly to account for 60% of its packing division. Eight years ago, Setterfield spotted an opportunity to supply larger, 25kg sacks and 12.5kg boxes to food manufacturers. "It was logical to extend our customer base, and that opened our doors to the food manufacturing sector," Setterfield says.

Bulk supply customers include Northern Foods, Matthew Walker, Solway, Fox’s and Dalepak. The new business has helped boost the company’s turnover by 600% - from £6m in 2000 to £42m in 2008.

So, how does Curtis go about sourcing its products and checking their quality? Often it is simply a case of testing samples sent in from abroad. At other times, a visit is needed. "We establish their credibility and monitor their stocks to ensure they are performing. They need to pass certain minimums and they must have HACCP processes in place," Setterfield says. Curtis builds up strong relationships with its own suppliers. "So we have a reliable source when markets go crazy," says Setterfield, adding, "some companies buy from any old merchant who may or may not ship."

== Interest in traceability ==

Curtis’ customers certainly keep it on its toes. "The story retailers want to hear is about provenance," he says. "They want to know about the supply chain being secure, that there is full traceability even back to the tree it was grown from."

Setterfield continues: "The industry as a whole is looking for something much more interesting for its customers." Curtis certainly goes out of its way to source the unusual and interesting. Its range includes the trendiest ’superfoods’, such as Vitamin C-rich baobab pulp and antioxidant-rich goji berries.

As well as gaining new business, Curtis has a major challenge over the next year, as global demand for fruit and nuts spikes and prices rise proportionally. Setterfield says: "India and China are consuming boatloads. They seem to have a growing middle class, able and interested in looking for products that would never have been in their diets before. They are buying almonds and pecans in massive quantities.

"There has been an increase in demand, leaving less-than-optimum supply. The situation has been fuelled by speculation. It can be pushed to inflated levels by speculators, with scant regard for the consequences. Other conditions are unpredictable.

"The pound has been devalued over the past year and, as an importing company, anything we sell is in pounds. In my 20 years in the business, I’ve never seen anything like it."

Setterfield also fears the current recession is exacerbating the situation. "It’s a worrying time, because it may impact on people’s eating habits. It could be the indulgent products that are hit first."

But Setterfield is staying positive. He says: "We’re going to push out as much as we can. There are [other ingredients] companies out there who are feeling the pinch, but we will go on being realistic in our margins, as our position in the marketplace continues to grow."