Cressida and I spent two very enjoyable days last week in Daventry at the Food and Drink Innovation Network‘s two-day ‘freefrom summit’ which I was chairing. FDIN freefrom seminars are a well established tradition by now – I think this was the fifth – but this was the first time that we had gone outside our retail comfort zone to ‘reach out’ to the food service and catering industry. Why? Well, because, come December 2014, they are, like retailers, going to have to declare any of the 14 major allergens in their food to their customers.
The whole business of food labelling, as you will all have gathered by now, is very fraught and few people in the allergy word are happy with the requirements for food service – that all establishments should be able to give information, written or ‘verbal’, to customers about allergens in their dishes – as they think that it still leaves far too wide a margin for error. However, it is certainly better than nothing – and it has induced near panic in some areas of the food service business who have, to date, managed to ignore the business of allergy almost entirely! For more detail on this see my post in November 2012.
For those who are interested in the nitty gritty, all of the presentations are up on the FDIN site now and detailed reports by Tim Nichol will be there next week – but very briefly, here are a few of the highlights.
• The UK retail freefrom market has grown from £213 million in 2008 to £385 million in 2013 and is estimated to reach £561 million by 2017.
• Last year alone the number of those buying gluten-free products in the UK went from 8 to 13% of the population; those buying dairy substitutes from 6 to 12% and those buying egg free from 3 to 6%.
• In food service, a market worth £7.8 billion in food alone each year, 27% of restaurants are now offering gluten-free options, an increase of 30% in just three years.
• Coeliac UK estimates that there could be up to £1 million’s worth of new business out there for restaurants offering gluten-free options for those needing/wanting to eat gluten free who, at the moment, eat out far less than they would chose to do because of the lack of gluten-free options on menus.
How to ensure a safe freefrom offer in food service
• Despite many allergic people’s poor experiences when eating out, several of the speakers felt that although freefrom in food service indubitably presented problems, they were not insuperable with good training.
• Several speakers also outlined the opportunity for packaging designers and food manufacturers that food service offered. If they could come up with really attractive sealed packaging for genuinely delicious freefrom food which could be served to customers in its pack, that would eliminate at one stroke most of the contamination, allergy awareness and staff training issues that bedevil food service attempts to go freefrom.
Thresholds and allergen actions levels
• René Crevel from Unilever, one of the world’s experts on allergy thresholds and action levels, talked us through the painstaking work going on in Europe to establish a realistic level for each allergen at which even a sensitive allergic person will not react.
The lack of such agreed levels (apart, as of last year, for gluten at 20 parts per million) has created an impossible situation for manufacturers. Even if their product does not contain milk/eggs/nuts, they dare not ‘claim’ that it does not as, were they to get challenged in law, they have no regulations to fall back on.
This means that if a laboratory were to find even 0.001 parts per million of, say, milk in their product, even though there is no analytical process that can reliably test that low and no one has any idea whether that vanishingly small amount really could cause a reaction, they would still be found guilty of selling a product as ‘freefrom milk’ when it was not.
The frustration of this from the consumer perspective is that there are many products out there that are, effectively dairy or egg or nut or soy free but which will not label themselves as such, so the dairy/egg/nut/soya allergic person does not feel safe to buy them.
Sadly, there is no immediate resolution in sight although René and his committees hope that 2017 might be the year…
• Ruth of What Allergy? brought many delegates up short by describing what it is like to live – and eat – with four life-threatening allergies.
• Simon Hazlett of Boulder Brands (somewhat cross eyed as he was at that point father of a two day old baby!) gave us a foretaste of the American gluten-free invasion which will kick off early next month with the launch of Udi’s!
• Gillian White of 24Vend made a good job of convincing us that vending machines were the ideal outlet for freefrom food to go. (Absolutely agree with that one!)
• And finally, Antony Worrall Thompson, bless him, dropped off on his way to Rochdale to take part in Question Time, to launch our FreeFrom Eating Out Awards!