Alpro’s decision not to combine the manufacture their nut and their soya milks on one line is very good news – not just for those mums of nut- and dairy-allergic children who campaigned so hard to make them change their minds, but for the allergen-free food world in general. (For more on the Alpro story see my blog two days ago and all over the press.)
Much was made during the Alpro campaign of how, with good manufacturing processes, it is possible to manufacture allergen free foods on the same lines as foods containing those allergens and to avoid contamination. This has always been the stance of food manufacturers who did not want to go to the expense of building dedicated, gluten/dairy/nut etc free facilities. As far as Alpro were concerned, campaigners had little choice but to endorse this approach as the only alternative seemed to be to deprive an already disadvantaged group of children of an important dietary staple.
But common sense dictates that there is far less chance of an allergen ever getting into a food if it is never let into a factory in the first place, no matter how good cleaning practices may be. So, realistically, a dedicated gluten/dairy/nut etc-free factory has to be ‘safer’ than one in which those allergens are used. Of course, allergens can still get in (brought on workers’ clothes, on delivery vehicles, by the wind, as a result of human error) but in terms of risk management, the risk has to be very much smaller.
And although the initial investment in building dedicated facilities is greater, running costs have to be significantly lower in terms of cleaning, checking, cross checking, monitoring and testing. Not to mention the commercial benefits to be derived from being able to promote yourselves as a ‘dedicated’ facility. And, of course, you can also say farewell to the dreaded precautionary ‘may contain’ labelling which lawyers at least feel is essential on any allergen-free foods manufactured in non-dedicated facilities.
This is the route that those companies who believed that ‘freefrom food’ was here to stay took a long time ago. Way back in the 1990s Kinnerton spent a million pounds separating their chocolate factory in two – a dedicated nut free facility entirely cut off from their nut-using facilities – and Bells of Lazonby built one of the first dedicated gluten-free bakeries in the depths of Cumbria. United Central Bakeries’ investment in a dedicated gluten-free bakery (now owned by Genius) ten years ago and, more recently, Warburton’s new site for their Newburn Bakehouse gluten-free brand, would suggest that the ‘big boys’ of the food industry also see dedication as the way to go.
And interestingly, it looks as though dedication may also be stretching its tentacles into food service, although it is of course, very early days. We have been surprised at the number of entries for the new FreeFrom Eating Out Awards (which close for entry next weekend) for dedicated gluten-free restaurants in which no gluten-containing products are used at all. And, of course, if you believe that the numbers of those wanting to eat gluten-free, whatever about anything else free, is going to continue to grow, this makes even more sense than it does in a factory.
While factory production is quite rigid and therefore relatively easy to control and monitor, producing food in a busy kitchen is a far more haphazard procedure in which it is infinitely more difficult to ensure that gluten-filled and gluten-free, or dairy-filled and dairy-free, ingredients, processes and utensils are kept rigidly apart. So never allowing gluten (or dairy, or nuts) onto your premises, simplifies matters hugely for the outlet. It also gives far more security to allergic/coeliac customers who no longer need to worry whether the ‘normal’ roll has got confused with the gluten-free one or whether the wait-person actually has a clue what you are talking about when you tell them that you are dairy allergic.
And this is not really a very revolutionary concept, as we have become aware from reading the entry forms for vegan cafés and restaurants. As vegans they have no truck with dairy products or eggs (or, obviously, any meat products) so they are and always have been, from our perspective, dedicated dairy and egg-free outlets.
And in a slightly different format this concept of dedication can even spread to individual food items.
I have long believed that there was a huge opening in food service for individually wrapped ‘freefrom’ foods which can be served to the allergic/coeliac customer in their wrappings, thereby by-passing all of the contamination hazards of a restaurant, pub or café kitchen and delivering a product to the customer in which they can have total faith.
Of course for this to work, the dishes or foods have to be packaged in such a way as to be able to be heated in their packs, and the packs must be sufficiently attractive to be able to be served direct to the table. No one wants a freefrom dish, no matter how gastronomically wonderful, served up in a foil container. However, this is certainly not rocket science – indeed, up-market ‘ordinary’ ready meal companies like Charlie Bigham’s are already serving their dishes in very cute little wooden containers which can go in the oven and then be served on on the plate.
This option has other advantages for both the manufacturer and the customer. Well known and recognised ‘freefrom’ manufacturers can brand their food service offerings thus allowing customers to pick a dish which they already know, and know to be safe. This also allows the company to promote awareness of their brand while they are at it. And from the customer’s point of view, an individually wrapped dish can also carry ingredient labelling so they can check exactly what is in it – a major plus if you have multiple allergies or intolerances – rather than having to go through the laborious, and not always reliable routine of asking the wait-person who then has to ask the chef…
A number of manufacturers, indeed, are already exploring this route. Dietary Specials makes a gluten-free white roll which can be heated and served in its cellophane bag and we had a number of cakes and tarts entered for the ‘food manufactured for food service’ category for the awards, all of which came individually and securely wrapped and could certainly be served that way.
Although many food service companies (especially the larger ones) have, theoretically at least, got their heads around serving allergic and food-sensitive guests, many of the smaller ones most certainly haven’t – and even among the larger ones, staff training and awareness remains an on-going issue. So they are right to be worried about how they are going to comply with the new regulations coming into force in December that will require them to be able to tell any customer about any of the 14 major allergens that are in their food.
However, it is not all doom and panic. There are truck loads of awareness and training courses now available (a few of them linked from the FFEating Out Awards site here) and manufacturers are rapidly getting their heads around the single portion freefrom pack concept.
Moreover, all outlets should remember that ‘freefrom’ customers are really very anxious to work with them and are usually pretty knowledgeable about their own sensitivities. So engage with them. What food sensitives dislike most is being dismissed or ignored so, in the vast majority of cases, as long a restaurant or café is genuinely trying to help and really want to be able to offer them something both nice and safe, their freefrom customers will be happy to share their knowledge and help to improve that outlet’s awareness and ability to cater for them.