Once upon a time ‘freefrom’ food was made by people with a dietary problem for people with a dietary problem – coeliacs, people with a dairy, nut or egg allergy, lactose intolerants. But times have changed. These days, much free from food is made by companies who have little or no personal experience of living with a food sensitivity for people who do not have a food sensitivity but believe that they would feel better and be healthier if they did not eat gluten or dairy products.
In many ways, this is excellent. The growing market is attracting larger players with deeper pockets, better distribution and able to apply economies of scale to their manufacture. This means that both the range and availability of freefrom food is growing by the week, and the cost is coming down. All good news for those on restricted diets. However, this silver lining does have a cloud.
One relatively small section of this cloud is likely to disadvantage those with the less common allergies – egg, nut, soya etc. The ‘voluntary food restricters’, those who believe that they would be healthier excluding certain foods but who do not have an allergy or serious intolerance to them, are really only interested in gluten and, to a lesser extent, dairy. Because it is they who are fueling the growth in the market rather than the true allergics or intolerants, the huge growth in the range of foods on offer is large restricted to gluten and dairy-free foods.
A rather larger section of cloud has hoved into view with the sudden rash of pizza operations offering gluten-free pizza and with the impending implementation of allergen labeling regulations covering ‘food sold loose’ and through catering/restaurant outlets.
The presumption made by an allergic or coeliac shopper buying a food in a sealed retail pack which claims to be gluten free, or dairy free or nut free, is that it will be. No one really knows how small an amount of an allergen will affect a seriously allergic person, nor is it possible to tests foods below a certain level for the presence of an allergen. However, for practical purposes most allergic or coeliac shoppers will assume that a food which claims not to include gluten, nuts or dairy, and to have been made in a factory which does not use gluten, nuts or dairy, will not include them. So that as long as their own home is free of that allergen, and that they eat the food in their own home, they are pretty sure to be safe.
However, once the food ceases to be sold in a sealed pack, the game changes. No matter how diligent the caterer, pizza maker or chef, no matter how well trained the staff, once the food exists in an environment where those allergens are also present, even if it is separated from them, the risk of contamination increases exponentially. And although the Pizza Huts and Domino’s of this world are making all the right noises about separation and contamination control and are, no doubt, very genuinely intending to follow all of the guidelines, it will be extremely difficult for them to ensure, in all of their outlets ‘going forward’, that a high enough level of care and control is maintained to exclude the possibility of confusion or contamination. Moreover, their gluten-free pizzas are also going to be served in their restaurants where there will still be lots of other gluten-containing food on offer. So even if the pizzas leave the kitchen uncontaminated, danger will still lurk in the restaurant.
Similarly, the new regulations covering food sold loose and through food service require every outlet to provide allergen information about the food that they serve – but, they are only required to provide it orally i.e. – you have to ask the staff about any allergens in the food and they have to tell you. But, given the non-existent level of understanding of allergy amongst 99% of those serving in food service outlets, the chances of you ever getting the correct information are extremely slim. (For a good deal more on this see either my earlier blog or our article on FoodsMatter.)
So while it is great, and we are all delighted, that the Pizza Huts of this world see enough potential in the gluten-free market to offer a gluten free pizza, and that the regulators are finally, sort of, biting the bullet of allergen labeling in food service, we would absolutely not advise anyone with a serious food sensitivity, be they allergic, intolerant or coeliac, to relax their vigilance. Hopefully, they will be able to eat pizzas and dine out in safety, but to do so, they need ask as many questions and make as many checks as they always have. At least there may now be a better chance that those they ask may have some inkling of what they are talking about – although I would not even rely on that. When waiters in up-market restaurants that pride themselves on offering gluten-free alternatives can still offer a coeliac a ‘safe’ dish because it has no butter in it, we still have a long way to go…
We have become peculiarly aware of this problem ourselves with the entry of Pizza Hut, among others, to the FreeFrom Food Awards. Up till now all but one of the categories in the awards have only been open to foods sold in retail packs only so our entry requirements and the information that we require have been extremely detailed and stringent.
The one exception was our ‘food service’ category – but that was originally conceived as a category for foods manufactured to be sold into food service, not for foods to be sold direct to the customer via a delivery service, so the same labeling and manufacturing criteria could be applied as were applied to ‘normal’ retail packs.
However, since one of the main purposes of the awards is to encourage more manufacturers to make ‘freefrom’ food, thus increasing the offering for freefom customers, we did not want to turn away entrants who were doing just that – ie the pizza delivery companies. But we have had to accept that it is simply not possible to apply exactly same criteria as we would to a retail entry. We are still working on it – watch this space…