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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Chasing the brazen bread basket thieves

The Bakers Basco concept revolutionised the bread sector but has also been plagued by major theft. Eamonn Duff spoke with new General Manager Richard Mew about the pioneering venture that’s become a victim of its own success

How did the Bakers Basco concept arise?
It was set up in 2006 by five of the UK’s leading plant bakers (Allied Bakeries, Hovis, Fine Lady Bakeries, Frank Roberts & Sons and Warburtons) to buy, manage and police the use of a standard basket for the delivery of bread to retailers and wholesalers.

Retailers wanted to standardise baskets used to deliver loaves and other bread products to their stores, and for some to also use the same baskets for display and sale. They’re made from hard-wearing heavy-duty plastic and last for at least eight years, representing a massive reduction in carbon emissions compared with disposable packaging (plastic or cardboard).

How many baskets exist across the supply chain?
There are four million bread trays or baskets and 500,000 wheeled dollies. The baskets belong to us and are only supposed to be used by licensees, and for the transport of bread. Our national asset recovery team locates misappropriated equipment and uses negotiation, education, collection and, where necessary, legal enforcement to reclaim assets and financial losses. To date, the division has undertaken close to 62,000 investigations and recovered over 2 million baskets and wheels.

How many legal cases are instigated annually?
It’s a moveable beast, but around 420 court actions have been issued since the national programme was implemented. Increasingly, we’ve resorted to securing restraining injunctions against habitual offenders. This has had a significant impact as it protects against not just the equipment unlawfully taken at that time but against all future losses from those same sources.

New General Manager Richard Mew

Tell us about a large scale theft. How did it play out legally?
In 2011, one of our members started losing significant numbers of baskets…150,000 within a few months, plus 4,000 dollies. Our investigations revealed two delivery drivers were conspiring with the owner of a plastics recycling company and taking truckloads of baskets to his plant, rather than returning them to us. We were able to demonstrate that almost 70 trips were made to the recycling plant over 39 different days. The total replacement costs surpassed £500,000. The three men responsible were found guilty of theft and sent to jail for a total 10.5 years. They were also forced to pay damages.

You’ve just successfully resolved the latest legal battle involving Leeds based David Wood Baking. Do most end that way?
In most cases, it just takes a phone call or personal visit from our asset recovery team; occasionally, we have to send a stern letter. In a very small percentage of cases, we do have to go down the legal route.

The baskets are taken by other bread companies. Who else takes them?
When baskets go missing, we do tend to check bakery companies and high street bakery outlets as a matter of course. Of more concern to us though, are the cases in which our baskets are used to transport food other than bread, or even non-food items. In those instances, we’re often faced with an extra outlay for deep cleaning – or even, if they’ve been used to transport raw chicken, as has happened, with the need to dispose of the baskets and replace them entirely, as it’s not safe to allow them back into the food logistics chain.

Any unusual recoveries?
Sometimes our baskets take on a whole new life altogether. We’ve seen them supporting vehicles that have had their wheels removed; used as lobster pots on a fishing boat; converted into doors and bed frames; turned into sheep-feeders; and – this one is my favourite – strung together to form a bridge for monkeys at a well-known primate sanctuary.

In a nutshell, why does it keep happening?
The simple answer is, because people are too tight fisted to go out and buy their own crates. However, there’s also the argument that our products are too well-designed, too sturdy and too useful – they can be used for a huge range of purposes. It’s a back-handed compliment, I suppose. But it’s still misuse or even theft, and we’ll do everything in our power to get our equipment back.

Sounds like your recovery team could keep a local constabulary in work. How big is the investigations arm of the business?
There’s a national team comprising individuals with experience in Loss Prevention, Debt Recovery, the Police and the bread industry. Recovery Officers target a range of businesses across the country including not only bakeries, but caterers, meat, and poultry companies too. The Recovery Division is also active in street and market sweeps and other investigations involving Police, Trading Standards, Customs and Environmental Health.

The business model was always going to attract widespread misuse – but did you anticipate the sheer scale?
We were very aware of the problem – it’s one of the main reasons we were set up in 2006. However, we have successfully cut the percentage of basket losses to single digits, compared with the 100 percent annual losses which non-scheme members have faced at times.

Has developing technology helped safeguard assets?
GPS trackers have worked very well for us but we’re not allowing ourselves to become complacent. We’ve already upgraded the GPS trackers we use, massively extending their battery life and robustness; plus, we’re actively monitoring and assessing other technologies that can be deployed.

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