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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August, 2003, 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK
Let them eat focaccia
Sliced white loaves
Crumbs! Sliced white is going up
Not long ago, a government would almost stand or fall by the price of a loaf of bread. But with the average loaf set to rise by 7p next month, there's little sign of open revolt on the streets.

Next to the exotic ciabatta, the crusty baguette or the rustic Irish soda bread, the standard 800g sliced white loaf is a pretty humble offering.

But down the years, this rather anaemic-looking mainstay of the supermarket shelf has stood for something quite remarkable.

The price of just such a loaf was one of those things governments almost used to stand or fall by.

In the 1974 general election, shadow minister Shirley Williams summoned all her reserves of indignation to impress upon voting housewives the effects of inflation on everyday life.

"Bread, standard white loaf. In 1970, you could buy it for nine pence," Ms Williams declared in an election broadcast. "Today, it costs no less than 15 pence. The three shilling loaf is here!"

Flour power

Ms Williams and her Labour cohorts were swept to victory a few days later, only to preside over a further doubling in the price of bread during their five years in power.

The 800g sliced, white loaf is still seen as the benchmark for bread prices
Figures are still compiled by the government
In 1971, a loaf was 9p; in 1975 it was 16p; 1980 it was 34p and today is 53p
In those days rampant inflation was to blame. Today, shoppers are facing another steep rise in the price of a loaf, after poor harvests have pushed up the cost of flour.

British Bakeries, which makes Hovis and Mothers Pride, expects to raise the wholesale cost of its products by 15% next month.

To the supermarket-going public, that is likely to mean a 7p rise in the average loaf.

With the equivalent of nine million large loaves sold every day, that accounts for an extra 630,000. For the average family which buys almost eight loaves a week, it means an extra 56p burden on the weekly outgoings.

It's worth noting that, were we still in the 1970s, Number 10 would likely be in full-scale crisis-management mode at this point.

"It certainly would have been an issue of great national debate. The sort of thing that might have toppled a government in those days," says David Southwell, of the British Retail Consortium.

What's a loaf of bread?

Fear of this sort of unrest led to the formation of the Price Commission in 1973, a government-led body which set prices for basic commodities such as bread and milk. The commission was abolished in 1979.

The novel baguette in the 1970s
So why has today's price hike passed almost unnoticed?

Bread just doesn't cut it with the public appetite like it used to, says Mr Southwell.

"As a key economic indicator, it's more nostalgic than anything. Now we have a more varied diet, with pastas, pulses and rice contributing to the carbohydrate intake that used to be down to bread and potatoes."

At the same time, bread itself has come to mean a confusing variety of things.

While the 800g standard white sliced loaf is still the basic commodity, the market has diversified with a staggering range of toasting bread, crusty loaves, baguettes, batons, flutes, focaccias, sourdoughs and so on.

Last year, the supermarket chain Waitrose began selling a French loaf baked in wood-fired ovens for almost 10 a throw.

Amid all this, the "price of a loaf" becomes somewhat irrelevant, says Simon Mowbray, of the Grocer magazine.

Lionel Poilane
Poilane loaves sell for almost 10
Another factor that has helped bury the issue is that for some years supermarkets have sold popular breads below cost price, as a tactic for drawing more people into their stores.

The ploy has started to wane recently, says Mr Mowbray. Nevertheless, while the average price of a large sliced white loaf was 53p last year, according to government figures, you can still buy a value loaf in Tesco for just 19p.

For a growing number of people however, any fluctuation in the price of a loaf will pass wholly unnoticed. They are the new devotees of the Atkins diet, which spurns foods such as bread and potato, and the popularity of which is said to have hit bakers hard in recent months.

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