News Real Bread Campaign

Co-op baguette case drags on

Resistance to ‘Irresistible’ loaf tanning salon sourfaux trading standards complaint.

Made and baked elsewhere using yeast. Credit: Chris Young / www.realbreadcampaign.org CC-BY-SA-4.0

Made and baked elsewhere using yeast. Credit: Chris Young / www.realbreadcampaign.org CC-BY-SA-4.0

On 30 January 2024, the Real Bread Campaign submitted a complaint to Co-op about its labelling and marketing of a  ‘freshly prepared’, ‘sourdough’ baguette, which the Campaign understood was:

  • Manufactured and baked by a third party and merely re-baked in Co-op stores, so apparently in breach of marketing regulations.
  • Made using baker's yeast and an additive.
  • Missing legally-required declaration of mandatory 'fortificants'

Four months later, the Real Bread Campaign is still chasing a resolution from Manchester City Council, the company’s Primary Authority for trading standards.

To be clear, this complaint is not that Co-op is making cheap products widely available, it is about how the company is marketing them.

Jump to updates

The original complaint

Emailed by the Campaign to  Co-op Chief Executive Shirine Khoury-Haq:

‘We have concerns regarding a product in the ‘Co-op Irresistible’ range that your company markets as a ‘white sourdough baguette’.

Freshness claim

As indicated by the label stating that this product is ‘produced for’ (rather than by) Co-op, we understand that it is manufactured by a third party at an unspecified location, then merely re-baked in Co-op stores. 

Food Standards Agency guidance states that: ‘Terms such as “freshly baked”, “baked in store” and “oven fresh” may mislead consumers into believing that they are being offered products that have been freshly produced on site from basic raw materials. Some stores sell bread made from part-baked products that have been packed in an inert atmosphere or frozen off-site then “baked off” at in-store bakeries. Use of terms like “freshly baked”, “baked in store” and “oven fresh” on these products could potentially infringe the general legal provisions referred to [earlier in the guidance notes]’

By marketing this re-baked product as ‘freshly prepared’ (three times on the front-of-pack label, and across more than 40 lines of text on the sides of the packaging), we believe that Co-op is not adhering to the official guidance. 

Will Co-op please remove this freshness claim?

Ingredients declaration

By law, four so-called fortificants must be added to all non-wholemeal wheat flour sold in the UK. Declaring them on ingredients lists of products made with ‘fortified’ flour is also mandatory. 

Why are the four mandatory flour ‘fortificants’ not listed on the label of this non-wholemeal flour product?

Sourfaux

Co-op includes the word ‘sourdough’ in this product’s name and markets it with claims including: ‘made with a 12-year-old starter dough for a delicious depth of flavour’.

Rather than an ingredient, flavour or style, sourdough is a process. The process of making genuine sourdough bread does not involve any additives or flavourings, and the only leavening/raising agent used in the process is a live sourdough starter culture.

This product’s list of declared ingredients is: wheat flour, water, sourdough (wheat flour, water), dehydrated devitalized wheat sourdough (water, wheat bran, wheat flour, wheat sourdough), salt, yeast, wheat protein, malted wheat flour, flour treatment agent (ascorbic acid).

Will Co-op please either remove the baker’s yeast, additive and dead sourdough powder from the recipe, or remove the word sourdough from this product’s name and marketing?

Co-op’s response

On 6 February 2024, the Campaign received the following: ‘Thanks for your email to Shirine Khoury-Haq, Co-op Chief Executive, my name is Sam and your email has been passed onto the Executive Resolution Team to reply on her behalf. 

Thank you for sharing your concerns regarding the term Fresh on our In store Bakery (ISB) bread.

We feel we would need to include the ISB category team in any decision, so technical, buying and product development. When this was discussed earlier in the year the category did present back evidence to demonstrate our approach (which has been in place for a number of years) is consistent with the rest of the market and some of those retailers offer a similar operation to us (i.e. part-baking in store, not producing in store from scratch).

We have not yet encountered any other knowledgeable stakeholders that share the same view. There is no specifically worded legislation that bans the approach we are taking and we have not received an enforcement challenge on this issue. In addition, there is no detriment to the bread by having it frozen and then baked off in store. It is not illegal, or impossible for any bakery to prepare dough in advance and store dough prior to baking. When this happens at a factory bakery the consumer would never know this is happening and it has never been identified as a cause for concern.

We would like to thank you for sharing your personal interpretation of the law, which you are entitled to hold however there are different interpretations and we believe that different interpretation we have is just as valid as yours and we can confidently say it is not illegal or mis-representative. We are legal in our labelling, and any areas that remain contentious we have the support of our Primary Authority to continue for the time being as is. 

In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us by replying to this email if there’s anything else that we can do.’

The trading standards case

Co-op’s response did not address the question of the so-called fortificants not appearing on the ingredients list, or the issue of what we believe to be the inappropriate and misleading use of the word sourdough. We also felt it was dismissive on the issue of freshness claims. 

As such, on 7 February 2024 we sent our complaint to Manchester City Council, which has the Primary Authority relationship for trading standards with Co-op:

‘We have concerns regarding labelling and marketing of a product in the ‘Co-op Irresistible’ range that the company advertises as a ‘white sourdough baguette’ and so sent the following message to Co-op's CEO:

[Text of the Campaign’s original email and Co-op’s reply - see above]

As you can see in the company’s reply, Co-op has not addressed the question of the so-called fortificants not appearing on the ingredients list, or the issue of what we believe to be the inappropriate and misleading use of the word sourdough.

With regard to FSA guidance on freshness claims, we think Co-op’s response suggests the company’s attitude is: ‘What the customer doesn’t know won’t hurt them and nobody has challenged us on it before. Everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t we?’

Will you please investigate these three areas of concern and take action as necessary?’

Send us your photos
We’re still collecting examples of apparently misleading ‘bakery’ section marketing to see if complaints need to be made against any of the UK’s ten largest supermarket chains. Find out more.

Updates

19 July 2024: We submitted new evidence to Manchester CC.

14 June 2024: Manchester CC responded: 'As this is 'new' information (albeit inextricably connected to the 'freshness claim' in your original complaint), I intend to respond to this by way of inclusion in my overall response to your original complaint. I am in discussion with the Co-Op on the matters and hope to have a response to your complaint as soon as I can speak to all relevant teams at the Co-Op.'

7 June 2024: We replied to Manchester CC: 'Thank you for this update. The fact that the product was manufactured outside the UK reinforces our case that Co-op’s claims - which imply where, when and how it was made - are misleading.'

We added: 'Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 requires that: ‘The indication of the country of origin or of the place of provenance of a food should be provided whenever its absence is likely to mislead consumers as to the true country of origin or place of provenance of that product.’ The regulation goes on to state: ‘In all cases, the indication of country of origin or place of provenance should be provided in a manner which does not deceive the consumer and on the basis of clearly defined criteria which ensure a level playing field for industry and improve consumers’ understanding of the information related to the country of origin or place of provenance of a food.’

You have discovered that one or more of Co-op’s ‘bakery’ section products are made outside the UK. This is not declared on labels, point of sale displays, or product pages on the company’s website. This deprives shoppers of important information and so further contributes to unfair competition with bakeries that make bread fresh from scratch in the UK. Again, this compounded by Co-op’s claims of when, where and how the products were made.'

5 June 2024: Manchester CC replied: 'I am able to provide you with a partial response on the matters raised.  I want to ensure that any response provided is done so with all the relevant information taken into consideration and as such I am still considering two aspects of your concerns.'  The officer said that Co-op's freshness claim and use of the word sourdough were still under investigation.

With regard to the absence of the mandatory flour 'fortificants' from the product's ingredients list: 'The Co-Op have advised me that this particular product is imported already formed and as such there is no legal requirement for the ‘product’ to be fortified.' 

We contacted Defra on this last point and were advised: 'In our view the requirements regarding the minimum level of added nutrients as stipulated in regulation 4 of the Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 apply at the import or sale of flour. Thus, this does not extend to the import of separate composite products which contain flour as an ingredient. Therefore, where flour is used as an ingredient in an imported product which has been manufactured outside the UK this would not need to be fortified. '

29 May 2024: We asked Manchester CC for an update on progress of this case.

21 May 2024: We asked Manchester CC for an update on progress of this case.

16 April 2024: We asked Manchester CC for an update on progress of this case.

13 February 2024: Manchester CC replied:  ‘I have received your complaint and have reached out to the Co-Op for a response.  Once I have received a response I will review the matter and provide a response outlining our position.’

See also

Published Friday 31 May 2024

Real Bread Campaign: The Real Bread Campaign finds and shares ways to make bread better for us, better for our communities and better for the planet. Whether your interest is local food, community-focussed small enterprises, honest labelling, therapeutic baking, or simply tasty toast, everyone is invited to become a Campaign supporter.

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