|Bakers cry over Prima flour
Bakery owners last week deffered plans to raise the price of bread but called on the government to urgently address several of their grievances: one of them being the supply of poor quality flour by monopoly-holder Prima.
"We can never be sure of the quality of flour we get," said Parakrama Dassanayake, head of the Bakery Owners Association (BOA). "There is no consistency."
"All of a sudden, we get some bags of bad flour which spoils quite a lot of loaves," he said, adding that batches of bread were wasted in this manner almost every month.
This was one of the main problems listed to Commerce Minister Ravi Karunanayake at a meeting last week.
Large bakery owners buy flour in bulk and cannot tell its quality until the bread is baked. Unlike in many other countries, there is no indication of protein or moisture content. Only the expiry date is available.
Because of the monopoly held by Prima, bakeries also have no option but to buy flour from the company.
Asked for an opinion on why flour quality varied so much, Dassanayake said it may be due to poor wheat.
A senior Prima official when contacted for comment said the company takes seriously all complaints on quality. "We are very concerned about issues of quality and look into all complaints in this regard," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Last weeks discussion had been called after the BOA announced intentions to raise the price of bread by one rupee. Dassanayake said that the minister had asked the association to write him a formal letter with their grievances and had pledged to inquire into them. Some of the problems put forward at an earlier meeting have already been addressed though several others have still to be solved.
The BOA told Karunanayake that the association may have to raise the price of bread to reduce their losses.
"Even if we went ahead with the one rupee price hike, we would be incurring losses," he noted. "But we may be able to narrow the gap. Our calculations show that the production cost of a loaf of 450g bread is between Rs. 13.40 or Rs. 13.67, depending on the recipe."
A 450g loaf is now sold at Rs. 12. A kilogramme of flour costs around Rs. 20.05. A government subsidy on flour expired in December and was not renewed by the United National Front government. Karunanayake told the BOA that the government expects a consignment of flour from India which may be sold at a cheaper rate, thus bringing down their costs to some extent."We will watch the situation for about two months," Dassanayake said: "Not a single baker makes a profit on bread."
He added that most bakery owners use bread as a marketing tool: they have noticed that once a person comes into a bakery to buy a loaf, they usually walk off with other savoury items and cakes. However, the party most affected by the current bread prices are the small-time bakers in rural areas who dont have their own sales outlets. They have to manufacture loaves and also bear the cost of transporting them to the boutiques, besides which they offer the bread to shops at a concession."What happens in these instances is that they reduce the weight of the bread," Dassanayke pointed out.
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