The Food Standards Agency is set to impose reductions in satfat levels on biscuits, but reformulation will not be easy, says Ronan Hegarty

Last week, The Grocer revealed that the Food Standards Agency planned to set reformulation targets for saturated fat levels, having already done so for salt .

The agency is expected to kick off the first part of a two-fold consultation process on the issue this month focusing largely on snacks such as crisps, biscuits, cakes, pastry and soft drinks. The news has provoked a wave of anger from an industry that feels it has already made great strides in reformulation and is tired of being painted as the bad guy.

It has also sparked concern about the impact on categories that so far have not heavily reformulated - either because of the technical difficulty or taste compromise involved - and top of that list of categories is biscuits.

The industry will be confident it can stave off tough targets for crisps - most retailers as well as branded suppliers have delivered huge cuts in satfats by switching from vegetable to sunflower oil as well as introducing baked alternatives. M&S, for example, has cut the use of satfat in its crisps by 70%.

Biscuits are a different story, however. To date, none of the biggest retailers has yet managed to make any significant progress in reducing the amount of satfat.

There are two main reasons for this, says BRC technical food director Andrea Martinez-Inchausti: the difficulty in finding suitable alternative ingredients and the costs associated with it.

When United Biscuits cut satfat in Digestives, Rich Tea and HobNobs by 50%, it took three years of development and cost £6m. Even then it said the new processes and ingredients would not work on other variants.

Retailers continue to work on biscuits, stresses Martinez-Inchausti, but they have prioritised easier categories such as crisps, sandwiches and ready meals.

Huge progress has been made since Waitrose kickstarted the satfat reformulation drive in 2005 when it developed a new breadcrumb coating using rapeseed oil for its chilled breaded fish range.

Since then it and other leading grocery retailers have slashed satfats across a vast range of lines.

"A lot of the work was done while companies were already removing salt," says Martinez-Inchausti. "It made sense to look at satfat at the same time. Also for retailers it was important to consider categories that people used every day, such as sandwiches."

A blanket target for biscuits would be unworkable, she warns, because of the vast array of different recipes in the category.

"You can't say there should, for example, be a 10% reduction in the satfat of all biscuits as this will have a very different impact on different biscuits," she argues. "Some have coatings or fillings. Reducing the level of fat by a certain amount will have a very different effect on different biscuits depending on whether they are high or low in fat to begin with."

A rigid set of targets won't work, agrees Barbara Gallani, sector manager at the Food and Drink Federation's Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Group.

"Reductions need to be tackled on a case-by-case basis and will take different amounts of time depending on different technical challenges," she says.

Gallani questions how companies can be expected to offer all-butter shortbread, for example, without using real butter.

"Consumers expect and appreciate the large variety on offer and would not settle for reduced choices, which would inevitably follow if strict targets were to be imposed on the type or quantity of ingredients used," she says.

For its part the FSA says it will acknowledge the work already carried out, but without concrete evidence of progress, biscuit manufacturers will have to work extremely hard to persuade the FSA not to set onerous targets.

No rest for the wicked, then. n