The convoluted and confusing messaging around the recent launch of US pizza chain Papa Johns’ ancient grain pizza has been greeted with equal measures of ‘shock horror’ and hilarity.
‘Papa John’s does not recommend pizzas with Gluten-Free Crust with Ancient Grains for customers with celiac disease. Although Gluten-Free Crust with Ancient Grains is gluten-free and Papa John’s employs procedures to prevent contact with gluten, it is possible that a pizza with Gluten-Free Crust with Ancient Grains is exposed to gluten during the ordinary preparation process. Please use your best judgment in ordering a pizza with Gluten-Free Crust with Ancient Grains if you have a sensitivity to gluten.’
So are they:
- Jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon so that they can sell ‘gluten-free pizza’ but not really trying as far as gluten contamination is concerned?
- Genuinely trying to the do their best by their coeliac and ‘seriously gluten intolerant’ customers by pointing out unavoidable risks?
- Not understanding the protocols around avoiding contamination?
- Being hounded by their legal departments to cover themselves in case someone has reaction?
You might well ask…
Papa Johns obviously do want to access the rapidly growing market for gluten-free pizzas – why wouldn’t they? Lots of their customers genuinely would ‘prefer’ – but do not need – to eat gluten-free pizzas. But even more of their customers still want to go with good old fashioned gluten-filled pizzas. So what are they to do? Realistically, they are not going to open separate shops for gluten and gluten-free pizzas, nor are they going to build separate kitchens or ovens. Although the gluten-free trade may be good and growing it would not justify that expense, even if there were space in the outlets. And anyhow, the majority of their customers who want to eat gluten-free pizzas are not going to be that bothered about the risk of contamination as, for them, it does not pose any serious risk.
But, what about the much smaller group for whom contamination does pose a serious risk?
In absolute terms, the only way that you are going to effectively eliminate the risk of gluten (or any other allergen) contamination is by running a kitchen into which gluten (or the relevant allergen) is never allowed. But for all kinds of reasons, that is not always possible. And for those establishments coeliac organisations, among others, (see here for Coeliac UK’s GF accreditation scheme) have set up protocols which eliminate enough of the risk for those bodies to deem it to be safe for coeliacs or anyone else with a serious gluten intolerance to eat there.
Pizza Hut, Pizza Express and no doubt many other pizza chains have chosen to go down this route even though it will have caused them all serious operational problems and significant cost. Pizza Hut, for example, keeps pizzas gluten-free by keeping ingredients in special gluten-free kits, bakes the pizzas on parchment paper (to avoid contamination from oven shelves) while employees preparing the pizzas have to wear gloves. Pizza Express have similar protocols in place and also only use gluten-free flour for rolling out all of their pizzas to avoid airborne gluten contamination. But despite all of these measures, if gluten is used on the premises – which obviously it is in a pizza restaurant – there will always be a very small risk that gluten-free food could get contaminated.
But then, no matter what you do you, you cannot eliminate risk entirely. Even in an entirely gluten free kitchen you cannot guarantee that no gluten will ever enter – on the wind – on a shoe – by some means that no one had ever thought of. The massive amounts of work that have been going on across Europe for the last ten years to establish ‘thresholds of risk’ for other allergens such as peanuts, milk, eggs, sesame etc have never attempted to find a level at which no one will react – but to find a level at which between 95 and 99% of the highly allergic population will not react. (For more on this see the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s corporate conference next month.) There is no such thing as totally risk free.
The issue is, what to do about it….
Pizza restaurants that have gained some sort of gf accreditation have chosen, reasonably enough, to rely on that and advertise their wares as safe for coeliacs and those with serious gluten issues. (In a court of law, should they find themselves being sued because a customer had had a reaction, having gained such an accreditation would certainly show that they had displayed ‘due diligence’ and would hugely reduce the chances of them being held liable.)
Papa Johns, for whatever reasons, appear not to have gone down this route preferring to protect super sensitive customers/cover their own backs (take your pick!) by adding this contradictory, confusing and totally unhelpful disclaimer. Maybe they need to reconsider their options….