Tuesday 2 August 2011

The '£32' loaf of bread

On 19 and 20 July, several newspapers thought they had a scoop on how much the NHS was spending on gluten-free food. In particular, they claimed that loaves of gluten-free bread which are available at the supermarket for £2.25 are being bought by the NHS for over £32.

'Prescriptions scandal: £32.37 a loaf' said a page 9 story in the Sun, which was accompanied by an editorial comment.

The Mirror went with 'Gluten free loaves costing NHS £32.27 a time', the Mail carried the headline 'Use your loaf! NHS officials pay £32 for gluten-free bread that costs £2.25 in the shops', while the Telegraph and WalesOnline ran the same claims under similar headlines.

The source for all this seems to have been a statement by Welsh Assembly member Darren Millar and it seems little fact-checking was done by journalists who repeated his claims.

The TaxPayers' Alliance were, inevitably, asked for their reaction and their spokesman Emma Boon said:

"It smacks of incompetence that the Welsh NHS is paying so much more than they are available for in the shops."

On 20 July, the Express gave James Delingpole space for an 886-word opinion piece in which he suggested this bread must be:

made of fairy-dust-sprinkled hypoallergenic wheat harvested by pixies at dawn, hand-ground by hedge-fund managers and then baked to perfection by Parisian masterchefs in ovens made of pure gold!

That the NHS was spending so much was, he said:

symptomatic of a system which is rotten to the core.

But the very next day, the Express published a correction, buried on page 26:

In James Delingpole's piece ('Who would spend so much on a loaf?' July 20) he states that the NHS spent £984,185 on 47,684 loaves of gluten free bread. This should have read 47,684 'prescriptions' for gluten free bread. The figure of £20 per loaf is therefore inaccurate. The price of an individual loaf of gluten-free bread is £2.82.

The Atomic Spin blog, which wrote about these misleading stories at the time, explains:

Well, it looks like the story comes from this Welsh government data about prescriptions. Sure enough, if you look it says that the 27 prescriptions of a particular type of bread, Lifestyle Gluten-Free High-Fibre Brown, cost £32.27 each. But doctors aren’t prescribing one loaf of bread at a time.

The important column is the one marked “quantity”, which tells you how many grams of bread were prescribed. For Lifestyle Gluten-Free High-Fibre Brown, doctors prescribed a total of 123,600 grams. Divided between the 27 people, that’s 4,577 grams each, or about 11 loaves of bread per person. So that £32.27 figure is the cost of buying 11 loaves of bread, not 1, and as the Welsh government points out, it works out at around £2.82 per loaf. This is still slightly more than the cheapest online cost of the bread, so I assume there is still room to bring prescription costs down, but NHS Wales is certainly not spending more than £30 on a loaf of bread.

And this was exactly the point made by the Welsh Health Minister, in responding to the media coverage:

Reports in the press this morning suggesting that a loaf of gluten free bread costs the NHS £32 are incorrect.

The £32 figure appears to have been arrived at following a misinterpretation of NHS prescribing statistics - which show the total number of prescriptions dispensed, rather than the total number of loaves prescribed. This data is available on the Welsh Government website.

Welsh Health Minister Lesley Griffiths said:

"This claim is inaccurate. The actual cost for the single loaf of gluten-free bread in question is around £2.82, not the £ 32 claimed. The £32 cost quoted is for an average prescription on which several loaves are ordered at a time...

Loaf of bread

Over the last 12 months there were 27 prescriptions issued for the gluten free bread quoted as costing £32 per loaf. On the 27 prescriptions, the total amount of the bread prescribed was 123,600 grams. Each loaf is 400 grams. Therefore, 309 loaves were prescribed for £ 871.36 ie £2.82 per 400 gram loaf.

At time of writing, the Sun's original article appears to have been removed, without explanation, from its website, and while the Express has published its apology in the paper, this has not been put on its website, where Delingpole's original is still visible. All the other articles remain.

(Big hat-tips to Atomic Spin and Primly Stable)

UPDATE: The TaxPayers' Alliance's Emma Boon was asked by Atomic Spin if she wished to withdraw her claims, given the original figures were so far out. Here's her reply.


  1. This story was also picked up on Channel 5's "The Wright Stuff". While the programme was on air I noticed tweets from the Welsh Government setting out the facts as described here, which i retweeted to @5wrightstuff (the programmes twitter account). Strangely enough no clarification or correction was offered either on air or in reply to my tweet.

  2. This sort of bad press for Coeliacs could really jeopardize the supply of items such as fresh bread on prescription. There has already been issues recently with the supply of fresh bread on prescription, but have just about managed to hold on to it. They should do some proper research into the issues and get their figures straight. I doubt the people writing the articles have ever experienced having to live on a gluten free diet (especially without access to the fresh breads that are now available), I think that would really put things into perspective for them. A Coeliac does not choose to live on a gluten free diet, they have to so they do not develop other medical conditions or even become seriously ill.

  3. TThere was a piece on radio4 about this a few weeks back and they interviewed someone from a comapny that supplies this kind of bread. She said "There is a big difference betweem using flour that has had the gluten removed and the sort we use, which is flour ground from specially bred gluten-free wheat"

    I have no idea what most of that means, but it sounded convincing, whereas spending 30 quid on a loaf of bread would have to involve a PFI contract somewhere.

  4. There's actually more to this than meets the eye - Wales on Sunday, which first printed this story, repeatedly asked the Welsh Government for comment on the figures in the week prior to publication. At no point were the figures queried or questioned. Then, on the Wednesday after publication, the statement from Lesley Griffiths was eventually released.


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