Real Bread Campaign angered by government’s ‘snub' of the artisan baker community’s sourdough demands
To mark the 10th anniversary of Sourdough September, the Real Bread Campaign has exposed more than 20 examples of ‘sourfaux’ on UK supermarket shelves: products marketed as sourdough, but manufactured by a fundamentally different process using baker’s yeast, chemical raising agents and additives.
The Campaign alleges this practice is deceiving consumers and undercutting small, independent local bakeries, but worse still, is being perpetuated from government level.
Promulgated almost a quarter of a century ago, the current Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 comprise outdated and inadequate loaf labelling and marketing laws. As such, on 1 September, Defra launched a public-wide consultation to amend them.
Alison Swan Parente, Chair of the Real Bread Campaign, said, “Key regulations governing our sector were laid down almost a quarter of a century ago, and the outcome of this review could affect independent bakers’ livelihoods for another generation to come.”
“We are simply asking the government to include these proposals in the consultation so that bakers – and everyone else – can have their say on them.”
However, according to Defra’s website, the consultations primarily are to mandate the compulsory fortification of non-wholemeal wheat flour with folic acid to help prevent neural tube defects in foetuses. There’s no mention of sourdough or any of the proposals submitted by the Campaign.
12 years of lobbying
The once-in-a-generation review follows 12 years of lobbying by the Real Bread Campaign to make full ingredient and additive labelling mandatory for all loaves.
In 2019, this became a legal requirement for pre-packed goods, but retailers today are not bound to display full ingredient lists for unwrapped products. This includes additives deemed as processing aids.
The Campaign’s long-standing call also includes setting legal definitions and requirements for the use of a range of bakery marketing terms, including fresh bread, baked in store, wholegrain, sourdough and artisan.
However, much to its chagrin, Defra has allegedly ignored every one of the Campaign’s Honest Crust Act proposals, despite a call by hundreds of bakery owners, workers and shoppers.
At the beginning of August, the watchdog sent a letter – signed by more than 150 bakery professionals from around the UK – to George Eustice, Secretary of State for the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The Campaign had also launched a call for concerned citizens to write to their MPs, garnering support from over 1,000 people.
“This is about honesty, transparency and listening to the people,” said Andrew Whitely, co-founder of Bread Matters, Scotland the Bread and the Real Bread Campaign.
“Our Honest Crust Act proposals are designed to support community bakers who help to keep our high streets alive and to help enable shoppers make better-informed choices about the food they buy.”
Young called the government’s disregard of the Campaign’s proposals an insult.
“As the majority of people buy products sold as bread, we believe that ignoring their needs is an insult to practically everyone in the UK. Combined with the absence of adequate intervention and support in the face of skyrocketing costs, it feels like the government has chosen to abandon the owners of small Real Bread bakeries that help to keep our high streets alive,” he said.
“If the current review of legislation regulating the composition, labelling and marketing of flour and bread is neither the time or the place to consider our Honest Crust Act proposals to update and improve the regulation of the composition, labelling and marketing of bread then exactly when and where is?”
The obstacles to better-informed choice
Defra’s Eustice purportedly told various MPs in a letter that existing legislation ensures food is ‘labelled effectively to enable consumers to make informed choices on the food they buy and consume’.
But the Real Bread Campaign vehemently disagrees, noting the regulations allow:
- Retailers to sell unwrapped bread without displaying full lists of ingredients and any additives used.
- Manufacturers to not declare additives deemed to be ‘processing aids’ even on wrapped loaves, though residues and by-products are permitted to remain in the finished product.
- Companies to market re-baked products as ‘freshly baked’, ‘baked in store’, ‘baked every day’ and similar, even if they were in fact made and first baked in a factory elsewhere - even overseas. The process uses around twice as much energy as baking once, and results in products that stale very quickly, increasing the risk of food waste.
- The use of undefined terms including wholegrain, sourdough, artisan and heritage/ancient grains to name and market substantively different products.
“Each of these represents a totally unnecessary obstruction to shoppers accessing fundamentally important information about a staple food, for whatever reasons they want or need it,” said Young.
“Clearly the market is failing to self-regulate, while the lack of actual regulation leaves consumer protection bodies all but powerless to act in cases of misleading marketing and incomplete/absent ingredient labelling.”
On 27 August, the Campaign named and shamed numerous examples of sourfaux on UK supermarket shelves – including products from big name brands like Warburtons, Hovis and Allinson’s, along with retailers like Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – at prices comparable with ‘the real deal’.
So, what's the difference?
According to the consumer watchdog, rather than a look, style, taste, trend or fad, sourdough is a process. Yeasts and lactic acid bacteria that are naturally present on the surface of grains end up in flour, and it is these that are nurtured to create a starter culture. Genuine sourdough bread making does not involve the use of baker’s yeast, chemical raising agents or additives.
Having a relatively low concentration of yeast cells, dough made from a sourdough starter requires a longer fermentation than that made using baker’s yeast. But it is this slow, time-honoured process that characterises the bread’s unique taste and texture. It also means greater costs for the baker in time, equipment and skill – and now exacerbated by skyrocketing costs of energy and ingredients.
While this translates into a higher price for sourdough, it is these Real Bread bakers that keep money circulating in local economies and support jobs.
“How can companies justify charging premium prices for products manufactured by standard processes? Someone trying to pass off vodka with a drop of scotch in it as single malt whisky would be stopped. Why is this sourfaux free for all being allowed to continue?” queried Young.
Don’t ignore us
Despite Defra’s snub, the Real Bread Campaign is not abandoning its quest and said it will respond to the consultation before the 23 November deadline.
In the meantime, it is encouraging even more people to sign up to its Honest Crust Act e-action, which enables them to ask their local MPs to urge the government to include legal definitions of a range of common bakery marketing terms, and full ingredient labelling of unwrapped loaves.
It also advises consumers to always read the label and to look for The Sourdough Loaf Mark.
“If these simple legal definitions were adopted for our nation's staple food, a whole new era of exciting and important innovation would be unleashed by challenger brands, especially around health. Without them, the race to the bottom will continue, helping no one, least of all the consumer,” said Leo Campbell, co-founder of Oxford-based Modern Bread.
“Transparency in labelling should be enforced in all products, especially universal family staples. Please help to inform and educate our country why this is incredibly important to our sector,” added Patrick Moore, owner of more? the artisan bakery.
“Please do something positive for the artisan and microbaker industry and support what the Real Bread Campaign is saying. Don't ignore us,” urged Keith Kirby, founder of Lekito in Guildford.
Sourdough for all
Run by the food and farming charity Sustain, the Real Bread Campaign has launched its annual Sourdough September campaign; this year encouraging bakeries to pilot schemes that make genuine sourdough bread more affordable.
Suggestions include inviting those customers who can do so to pay a little extra to cover reduced priced loaves for those hit by the cost-of-living crisis. A scheme might be funded by a pay-it-forward system that invites customers who can to pay an extra 50p-£1, which is then issued as a discount vouchers for those in need during the month.
“While it’s good to see bakeries discounting or giving away leftover loaves at the end of the day to stop them going to waste, the idea of Real Bread For All is helping people on tight budgets to walk into a bakery at any time of day and buy a loaf like any other customer," said Young.
The Campaign is also showcasing baking classes, food festivals and other ‘fermentalist’ events taking place in September around the globe, along with a map of Read Bread bakeries. Typically, said Young, #SourdoughSeptember generates 4,000-5,000 tagged posts from around 60 countries on Instagram alone.
Limited edition ‘Say no to sourfaux!’ T-shirts, aprons and mugs are available until the end of September.