On the basis that no publicity is bad publicity, last night’s Newsnight feature certainly raised the profile of coeliac disease and gluten free food and, in the ‘value for money’ area, the NHS came out a lot worse than the gluten-free food manufacturers. None the less, a very brief trawl through the first dozen or so comments on the Newsnight site brought up around eight complaints about the cost of gluten-free food in the shops and four queries as to why coeliacs should get food on prescription at all – and especially why they should get cakes and Bourbon biscuits…
Setting aside the lamentable genius of the NHS for wasting money (which reduced Mrs Crimbles’ Jeremy Woods’ fellow guest to speechlessness – tricky in an interviewee…), gluten-free food does still remain significantly more expensive than ‘normal’ food. Although, historically, there are very good reasons for this (unusual, expensive and hard to obtain ingredients, no economies of scale, more difficult – and therefore expensive – manufacturing techniques, extra testing for allergens, poor distribution) as gluten-free/freefrom food becomes more mainstream these reasons become less and less valid. While a small premium (to cover extra testing and allergen control) may be acceptable prices of £2.50 for a loaf which in ‘normal’ format might cost £1 does, even taking all of the above into account, seem excessive.
The arguments over whether coeliacs should be entitled to get their food on prescription has been raging for several months – since these figure first came out. I blogged about it back in January (see here) and it has been widely covered elsewhere on the blogosphere. A number of NHS trusts are currently reveiwing their policy, and Coeliac UK are trying to deflect the flak by advising that only staple foods (bread, pasta etc), not treat foods (cakes, Bourbon biscuits), should be available on prescription. But while Jeremy Woods, quite reasonably, stayed on coeliac message last night and supported prescription food for coeliacs, maybe a better way to go would be to focus on getting the price of gluten-free food down to within striking distance of non-gluten-free food.
In a discussion last night, prompted by a call to say that Jeremy would be on Newsnight, FoodsMatter’s webmaster suggested that, instead of spending the money on prescription food for coeliacs, the government should spend it on helping gluten-free manufacturers to get the price of gluten-free food down. Unlikely though it is that this would come to pass, it makes some sense. And it certainly makes some sense for the burgeoning number of manufacturers of gluten-free foods to focus their attention on reducing their prices so as to capture the custom of those coeliacs whose loaf of bread currently costs the NHS (us) £32!