Bread summit

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2003/11/22 08:43:16 (permalink)

Bread summit

Not too long ago there was talk in the forums about the apparent decline in bread consumption and its relationship to the Atkins phenomenon. Yesterday in Providence there was a meeting of bakers and other bread-related food industry types to discuss the problem. Below is the article from this morning's Providence Journal detailing the affair. The article itself may be found at (registration required.)

Bakers and suppliers discuss their future in the age of Atkins
01:00 AM EST on Saturday, November 22, 2003

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- Bakers have met the enemy -- and it is us.

Not quite, but the opinions Americans hold about carbohydrates are making it difficult for the country's bakeries, flour makers and wheat growers to flourish.

"It's kind of the vigilante approach to eating," said Carolyn O'Neil, host of the PBS series Cook Off America. "You identify the bad guys, round them up and drive them out of the neighborhood."

For many of the weight-conscious, the bad guy has been carbohydrates -- but the bakers worry about being the ones hurt in the battle along the waistline.

But now they are fighting back. About 100 bakery industry members from around the country gathered yesterday at the Bread Summit, sponsored by the National Bread Leadership Council at Johnson & Wales University's Harborside campus, to begin an effort they hope will unite them in a fight against the low-carbohydrate diet trend.

The theme of the event could just have well been, "Got message?"

"Part of the problem is that we don't promote ourselves very well," said Mike Moran, of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, an association of artisan bakers. "We may not do what the beef council does, or the dairy board does," to market their products. "I don't think we'll ever match them dollar for dollar."

While panelists and participants agreed that the low-carb trend, popularized by the Atkins diet, has given them an opportunity to educate consumers about the true meaning of the food guide pyramid, they're divided about how to change perceptions about bread, or how to boost sales.

"Maybe out of this conference we might develop that" message, said Bob Hirsch, of the Baking Industry Suppliers Association.

O'Neil, who helped introduce research conducted for the bread council, noted, "The majority of Americans do not know the basics of the food guide pyramid."

According to the Schapiro Research Group, only 36 percent of the people they surveyed by telephone in mid-September consider bread a "good" carbohydrate. Also, only 17 percent of the participants recognized the importance of grains in the human diet.

"People are making changes in their diet really based on misinformation," said Beth Schapiro, head of the research group.

Overall, the research shows that about 40 percent of Americans are eating less bread than a year ago.

Other statistics support the council's research.

Estimates of the number of Americans on low-carb diets vary widely -- from 5 million to 50 million. Research from the NPD Group Inc., of New York, shows that about 21 percent of the populace is on some sort of diet at any one time.

The Wheat Food Council notes that flour consumption in the United States has dropped by about 10 pounds a year per person since 1997.

But it's not all bad news, said industry members.

Hirsch, of the Baking Industry Suppliers Association, said the bread industry remains vital. He noted that bread sales in the United States reached $11.36 billion last year, and said he expects sales will rise about 1.9 percent this year.

The Bread Bakers Guild of America, in a survey of its own released yesterday at the summit, reported that 78 percent of the responding guild bakeries reported that their overall sales increased or remained level so far this year, and 74 percent reported level or increased bread sales.

Dan Portley, senior vice president of Bay State Milling Co., said U.S. government statistics show flour output at mills was nearly 1.4 million 100-pound units in the third quarter, about 7,000 units higher than the same period a year ago. Based in Quincy, Mass., the company employs about 250 people in five mills around the country.

"It's more or less high-end earners or consumers who have become concerned about carbohydrates," he said. "For most of the country [bread] remains a staple."

Portley, Hirsch and representatives from the larger businesses see growth potential in Hispanic, Chinese and other ethnic markets. They also see potential in processes that increase the shelf life of bread products.

But that kind of talk drives people like Ron Shaich nuts.

Shaich, CEO of Panera Breads, said more preservatives and marketing won't help boost sales or reconnect Americans to their food sources.

"I think there's a huge battle playing out in this country between the industrialized food system and the food coming out of the farmers markets," Shaich said. "People don't trust the system."

Shaich warned summit participants against developing a marketing message the industry can't support.

"What I find offensive is this idea of extended shelf life -- fresh is fresh," he said. "I don't believe there's a chemical solution; I don't believe there's a marketing solution."

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