The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, May 03, 2004

Retailers lie, too

Lest it be thought that the manipulation of truth is the exclusive domain of politicians and journalists, a corrective:

In a long and informative piece in the Guardian today, the nauseating story of modern British bread.

The food industry in Britain is based on the Don't ask, don't tell principle. Sausages and pâtés made with mechanically recovered meat, ice-cream with (for good reason!) the consistency and after-taste of whisked-up margarine (that's oleo Stateside, I believe) - and the truly Orwellian concoction that is (I laughingly say) bread created by the Chorleywood Bread Process - or CBP.

Chorleywood the town is a part of Metroland - much lauded by deceased Poet Laureate John Betjeman - that lies beside the Metropolitan Railway between Baker Street and Aylesbury.

But it also harboured the British Baking Industries Research Association, which 'perfected' the ghastly process that has long dominated the bread market here. In fact, the piece says,
Independent "craft" bakers account for just 2% of the market, but many of them depend on the same factory premixes of flour and additives too.

The fourth largest economy in the world eats shit for bread.

The piece also gives us a little insight into retailing MO:
At the root of the problem is "loss leading". It works like this. Everyday groceries, such as bread, butter, milk and sugar, are classified as known-value items (KVIs). These are the key purchases whose price shoppers know and by which they judge which shop offers the best value. Most prices are no longer marked on packets but only appear on the shelves, where we notice them briefly. As a result, most of us have little clue what other items cost.

White sliced bread is one of the supermarkets' key competitive weapons and has been sold below cost for some years. In July 2003, the cheapest white sliced bread in the major multiples was being sold at 19p, when the cost to the retailer was between 22p and 26p. If the supermarkets had been selling it with a typical retail margin, it would have cost 28p-33p. Bread in England is half the price of similar bread in France and a third of the price of the German equivalent. The cheapest bread is nearly always an own-label loaf, which gives the supermarkets more bargaining power over the suppliers since this undermines the manufacturers' own brands by making them look like bad value, and increases competition between suppliers.

And, of course, the retailers' losses on KVIs are made good in higher prices elsewhere - on those items we can't remember the price of. Healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables and wholemeal bread, tend to have the highest retail margins, whereas loss leaders are often the least healthy purchases - over-refined cereals, highly processed products full of salt, fat and sugar. So loss-leading drives a race to the bottom: it undercuts quality foods and distorts the market in favour of the cheapest and unhealthiest. And it has put most of our traditional bakers out of business.

The premium loaves baked in-store by supermarkets - albeit from prebaked dough - are closer to real bread. But even a couple of bucks for a 28 oz loaf [1] does not guarantee against insipid taste, with a sometimes excellent crust covering a soggy, cake-like crumb (or mie, in French).

The industrialisation of bread did provide one benefit not noted in the piece: the grindstones that ground flour before roller-mills came along tended to leave fragments of stone in the flour, which did the teeth no favours.

Always look on the bright side of life...

  1. That's 800g - most blog readers are from the US, which is just about the last country to use Imperial weights. Ironical in more ways than one.

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