HL Deb 19 December 1940 vol 118 cc182-90

My Lords, I should like to ask His Majesty's Government, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh, whether they are now in a position to make any statement regarding bread.


My Lords, for some time past I have been in consultation with the baking trade in this country on the subject of the price of bread, which, since October, 1939, has in a large part of the country been 8d. for the 4 lb. loaf. The average price throughout the country is 8½d., and this is the figure that appears in the official cost-of-living index. In the early summer, the baking industry drew my attention to the fact that increases in wages and in other costs had rendered the existing price one that was no longer yielding a fair rate of profit to some considerable sections of the trade, and they asked me whether I would conduct an inquiry into the matter with a view to increasing the price by ½d. per quartern loaf. After a detailed inquiry, I came to the conclusion that this demand was reasonable, but it chanced that the time I met the bakers coincided with the time when France went out of the war, and a deputation from the bakers that was meeting me that day immediately agreed that that was not an occasion when they were prepared to ask the public to pay more for a staple article of food. I was greatly impressed by this patriotic sentiment of the trade, to which I would also like to pay tribute for the magnificient way in which they have met the circumstances that have arisen from the bombing of large cities. Throughout all these difficult times, those employed in this trade—often regardless of personal danger and certainly regardless of commercial profit—have made it their first duty to see that the public of these bombed areas were supplied with bread; and they have never failed. My personal indebtedness to them for this war work has been so great that I thought it proper that I should mention it in your Lordships' House.

The question of the price of bread is a matter of great concern to the people of this country. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has been good enough to agree with me that every effort should be made to secure that increases in the price of bread should be delayed as long as possible. This certainly is not the time for any such increase, but equally we cannot expect the trade to continue to do the work that we are expecting from it unless it is reasonably remunerated. In these circumstances the Government have arranged to make a payment through the medium of a rebate on the price of flour, which will be equal in value to ½d. on the quartern loaf, to all bakers for all bread sold by them at 8d. per quartern or less. This scheme will be operation for not less than three months, during which time the arrangements for keeping down the price of bread will be reviewed again. The scheme will enable bakers who are at present selling unprofitably at 8d. per quartern, or less, to maintain this price, and it is hoped that it will encourage bakers who are selling bread to-day at 8½d. to reduce the price to 8d., in order to qualify for this subsidy payment.

The estimated cost of this new subsidy, during the three months for which, in the first instance, it will be granted, is in the neighbourhood of £750,000. It will be retrospective to December 1, 1940, in order that the trade may not feel that it has been prejudiced by the time that has been taken to consider this position since they made representations to me on November 20. The plan has, so far as I can see, but one disadvantage, and that is that it will entail a certain amount of work in producing a return of the number of loaves sold at this price. But it will have several material advantages. Your Lordships know that varying qualities of bread are sold throughout the country, some of which are more in the nature of cake than of bread: in addition to that, flour goes into the making of pastries and biscuits. I cannot see any reason for making further calls on the Exchequer in order to keep down the price of these articles, and therefore I am using this new subsidy directly in order to keep down the cost of living for an article that is essential in the national diet.

Your Lordships will perhaps allow me to take the occasion to make some comment on the general policy of the Government regarding the supply of bread in this country. I have arranged with the bakers that they will supply at the same price either a white bread or a wholemeal bread. The subject of wholemeal bread is one that has occasioned a great deal of interest in the country since the outbreak of war. I have been urged repeatedly to adopt a standard loaf made of wholemeal, containing a high extraction of flour comprising 80 per cent. or more of the wheat berry. I have decided to adopt an 85 per cent. extraction as a basis for wholemeal flour, which will be supplied at the same price as what is called "national straight run" white flour, and this will contain the necessary quantities of Vitamin B1, which scientific authority considers to be an essential if we are to obtain the best value out of our bread.

I have been impressed by the unanimity of scientific opinion on the nutritive value of wholemeal bread, and I have also been impressed by the obvious desire of people who are not scientists, who are anxious to compel everybody to eat wholemeal bread. But this virtue of wholemeal bread is by no means a discovery of the war: its virtues have been widely known to the public of this country for some years, and certain trade interests have spent vast sums of money in advertising the nutritive value of wholemeal bread to the public at large, who have had ample opportunity of testing it and expressing their opinion on the subject. The returns obtained by the Ministry of Food from all flour millers in the country show that the average delivery of all kinds of high extraction flour does not exceed 5 per cent. of the total delivery of all flour. Reckoning that about 60 per cent. of the total flour output is used for bread-making, it follows that the total quantity of bread made from high extraction flour is only a little over 8 per cent. of the bread consumption of the country—this in spite of very high advertising costs for all these years.

There appear to be many reasons for this—primarily, I suppose, the simple reason that the majority of people do not like to change their habits, or else they do not like the bread. The Scientific Sub-Committee appointed to advise the Government on their food policy carefully sifted the facts. They were aware that brown bread does not keep as well as white bread, and is less attractive as a food when it is stale. Further—and this is very important in war-time when we must maintain reserve stocks of flour—high extraction (lour does not keep as well as the straight-run white flour, and it would have to be turned over in store twice as often as white flour if it is not to go out of condition. In these circumstances, I am loath to consider that it is in the interests of the more successful prosecution of our war effort that I should insist on the public having no choice in the matter but to eat wholemeal bread. 1 therefore consider that the proper attitude for the Ministry of Food to adopt is to secure that such bread is available in adequate supply to the public at the same price as white bread, and at the same time I have considered it my duty to draw the attention of the public to the advantages which the Scientific Committee assure me that those who eat this bread are likely to obtain; at the same time recognising that there are classes of people in the country to whom, for physiological reasons, such bread is not suitable as a diet. I am afraid that this decision will disappoint those people who are anxious that I should adopt a more dictatorial attitude, but I am sure that the advocates of wholemeal bread will not abate their efforts to persuade the public to adopt this form of diet; and those doctors who have so insistently and persistently urged upon me the importance of compulsion in this matter will doubtless be able to convince their professional colleagues of the wisdom of pressing its merits upon those whom they advise in matters of health and in the hospitals that they control.

Another aspect of this subject has aroused some public interest, and that is the question of fortifying white bread. For a period of some four years before the war, the flour-milling industry of this country has spent a great deal of money on research as to the best means of remedying the recognised deficiency of white flour in Vitamin Bi. Guided by their scientific advisers, they had made arrangements to secure the production of Vitamin Bi synthetically, and had found a means whereby it could be introduced into white flour without affecting the appearance of the flour, its baking quality, or its keeping quality. The Government considered a report of their own Scientific Sub-Committee on this matter, and decided to ask me to take the necessary steps to secure that white flour should be fortified with synthetic Vitamin Bi, and concurrently to ensure that sufficient supplies of wholemeal bread were available for all the public who wanted it.

To convert scientific discovery that had been put into practice on a laboratory scale into an enterprise sufficiently large to meet commercial demands is a long process, and supplies of synthetic Vitamin Bi will not be available in any quantity until the spring—probably May—of next year. The Scientific Advisory Committee has also drawn the attention of the Government to the importance of the addition of certain calcium salts to flour that is deficient in this element. I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, who is the very distinguished chairman of the Medical Research Council, is here to-day, and I venture to express the hope that he will give the House the benefit of his authoritative views on this subject.

I apologise to your Lordships for having taken so much time on this subject, but it was clearly proper, in view of the increased expenditure of public money, that I should make a statement to you on the question of the price of bread during the next three months. I hope the fact that I have arranged that wholemeal bread will be available to meet the full extent of public demand, and that in the printed literature of the Ministry of Food I will continue, as I have in the past, to advocate its virtues to those of the public who find in it a suitable diet, will give satisfaction to those who have been unstinting in their advocacy of this policy as a support to national health.


My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend for his very full statement. He need not have apologised for its length; the subject is very important. May I ask one supplementary question? We shall of course have to study the statement. The bakers are going to have flour really at under cost. May I ask my noble friend whether he has taken into consideration the housewife who still bakes her own bread? There arc still a great number of them. Is everything being done to ensure that she will get her flour at the same price as the bakers? The other thing I wish to mention is that I do hope that the speech which my noble friend has made will be widely circulated. To-day's proceedings will be concentrated on the statement made in another place, but some means should be taken of widely circulating the very important statement we have just heard.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, it might be appropriate if I give your Lordships some of the reasons why the Medical Research Council made the recommendations which they have done. First of all, I should like to say that nobody could fail to appreciate the importance of the statement the noble Lord has just made, not only from the point of view of price, which of course is of the first importance, but also from the point of view of quality. I would also like to add that it has given me immense satisfaction that this statement has been made in your Lordships' House. It is gratifying that statements of this character should be made sometimes in this House and not always in another place.

From the earliest days of the war the Medical Research Council gave this question of bread their close attention, and after consideration of the scientific aspects they decided to recommend that bread should be made of an extraction of the wheat grain of not less than 80 to 85 per cent. The reason for that is in order that the bread should contain the germ of the wheat grain, as much as possible of the aleurone layer, and the finer portions of the bran. This means that the extraction should be not less than 80 to 85 per cent. A further recommendation was made that a small percentage of calcium salt should be added to this flour in order to overcome a defect, especially in bread made from this higher extraction flour. Although this bread contains a greater proportion of calcium, nevertheless it is necessary to add calcium. I had perhaps better read what my scientific friend says on the subject because I find a certain difficulty in following it myself: A small quantity of calcium salt should be added to this flour in order to overcome a defect of bread, especially of bread made from a higher extraction flour, of preventing the utilisation of calcium by the body. The point is that the addition of calcium will increase what is known as the calcium retention.

It is essential that calcium should be added to the brown bread in order to allow better bone and tooth formation. It appears that our people are definitely deficient in this particular quality of bone formation. The Medical Research Council find that there is evidence that calcium deficiency has long been a defect of nutrition among people in this country. This is evident in the widespread defective formation of teeth, and the need that is generally recognised of giving cod liver oil and other sources of Vitamin B to children in order to increase calcium retention in the body. It is a curious fact that, although brown bread contains more calcium than white bread, it is more essential that extra calcium should be added to the brown bread in order to allow more perfect bone and tooth formation. This is vitally important to the poorer sections of the community because it is among them that the deficiency of calcium has especially to be overcome. The deficiency is overcome by the protective foods—milk, cheese, and vegetables—which of course the poorer sections of the population have difficulty in obtaining.

The Medical Research Council, while thinking that everybody ought to eat wholemeal bread, recognise the practical difficulties to which my noble friend has referred, and, as he said, no one would wish to see a dictatorial attitude adopted. I was delighted to hear him say that he would continue his advocacy of this bread. No doubt there is an immense amount of popular prejudice. The addition, of which the noble Lord told us, of Vitamin B to the 70 per cent. extraction flour is, of course, also a very desirable step which the Medical Research Council would cordially approve. It will certainly make the 70 per cent. extraction flour—that is wheat flour—better than it would be without it, although we do not think that even with the addition of calcium and Vitamin B it will be as good as the 85 per cent. extraction flour. This will not make brown bread. It will make bread of what I may call an off-white colour, and in some ways that is unfortunate because there may be a greater prejudice against what may look like a dirty loaf than against a really brown loaf.

To sum the matter up, the scientific opinion of the country will be extremely glad to have the pronouncement the noble Lord has made to-day. There is just one point on which I should like, not to strike a discordant note, but to enter a slight caveat. The noble Lord told us that neither the flour nor the bread of high extraction would keep as well as the 70 per cent. extraction flour and bread. I am told that, properly made, it would have suitable keeping qualities, but there is a difference of opinion on the subject between the trade and the scientists. It may be that some alternative method may be necessary which is not easy, but there is a genuine difference of opinion there. That is the only point in the noble Lord's speech I would not wish to be taken as accepting—that higher extraction flour and bread made from it, if properly made, could not have good keeping qualities. I have said enough to show your Lordships that this decision is one that scientific opinion will cordially welcome. I beg the noble Lord to increase his advocacy of this bread and flour with all the persuasive powers at his command. I support also the plea made by the noble Lord opposite that this flour should be made easily available to the housewife. It is a great misfortune that the habit of baking one's own bread is disappearing.


Not in the North of England.


I accept the correction, but it is a fact that it has largely diminished. We have had a very interesting example in the Western Isles of Scotland. In proportion as the bakers' bread penetrates, the teeth decay. We have had a census of the population in the Island of Lewis, and find that in the remote places the teeth are good, but in the ports and the coastal districts, where the bakers' bread goes up from Glasgow, the teeth are rotten. You could not have a better proof than that of the necessity for this type of flour which the noble Lord has introduced, and I am grateful to him for his statement.


My Lords, the high extraction flour will be available to the housewife just as it will be available to the baker, but the subsidy will not follow the flour to the home baker, because the subsidy is given on account of increased costs of making bread, increased transport charges, wages, and general overhead charges, and these do not apply in the case of the housewife. I would draw the attention of the noble Lord to the fact that we are already spending £35,000,000 in subsidising flour generally, and so the housewife is already getting the benefit of a considerable amount of the subsidy. It would indeed have been just a little difficult to put on this extra £750,000 and at the same time to secure that it is only directed to the making of bread and not to the making of pastries and other things.

I am very grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour. I think, as he went on, I became more and more convinced of the difficulty of my task in trying to meet scientific opinion in the country. A newspaper recently said that it was most regrettable that the Minister of Food should acknowledge that he did not know what a vitamin was. I think my only safe plan is to continue in that ignorance, and to rely upon the scientific gentlemen who so unreservedly have given us their support and the results of their research on this work in order that we might arrive at correct conclusions. I can assure the noble Lord that my efforts shall be unabated in advising the public of this country of the results of this scientific research. It is quite clear that the more high extraction flour is used the less will be the demand on our shipping space for wheat, and it may be that it will become a part of national policy to press very hard for the consumption of this form of bread purely from this point of view. I am grateful to your Lordships for the attention you have given to this subject.