29 October 1999

French flour assurance wins over UK retailer

By Robert Harris

and Peter Grimshaw

FRENCH millers are using quality assurance to secure UK markets for their flour, tempting at least one major retailer to switch from domestic produce.

Peter Knight, managing director of Smiths Flour Mills, Worksop, Notts, which supplies big multiples with flour, says the move is a real threat.

"We are not the only miller who can confirm that. The fact that French growers see assurance as a marketing opportunity is a big contrast with the controversy surrounding the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme in the UK. It is utterly depressing. If we are not careful we could lose the advantage we should have."

While UK millers cannot guarantee assured grain this year, they are giving preference to it, says Mr Smith. He hopes retailers will stick to the schemes timetable.

"If one retailer breaks away and demands assured grain now, before we know it there wont be enough grain to go around. Next year, we are pretty confident all our grain will be assured."

Peter Jones, wheat director at Rank Hovis and a director of ACCS, says while the French tonnage involved is small, such competition will increase. "We must get the UK scheme in place as soon as possible."

But he is concerned at the marked fall in the amount of assured grain being delivered this season.

"Last year 25-30% was assured. This year we should have had 50-70%. As of three to four weeks ago it was as low as 18%." With latest membership figures showing increased support for the scheme, the reason is simply that growers are failing to attach ACCS stickers to grain passports.

"Unless growers do this, we cannot build a database of assured grain suppliers," says Mr Jones. That will make it difficult for millers to guarantee assured supplies to customers next harvest, he warns.

Two major supermarkets available for comment expressed their support for ACCS, and claim to be prepared to wait for it to roll out.

"Were very supportive of the scheme," says Rex Pearce, Sainsburys technical manager for bread. Although he claims the company intends to source ACCS wheat for its in-store baking, it is not rushing the policy through. "We just encourage it at this stage, but theres no question, at this point, of dictating to our suppliers."

Safeways Nigel Garbutt says his company fully supports ACCS objectives. Nor is the company in any hurry to push the scheme faster than it can go. "Were working with producers who know where they are going, and we realise we cant get there in one," he said. "Were not making it a pressure point."