Walkers Crisps: goodbye ‘suitable for coeliacs’, hello ‘made in a factory…’

Looking for a list of gluten-free crisps? Then click here. This list was last updated in July 2017. 

If you’re interested in the story of how Walkers Crisps went from being coeliac friendly to coeliac unfriendly back in 2012, continue reading …. 

So, Walkers Crisps.

I think I first became aware of an issue when I saw this post on the Coeliac Kids website in the summer. This was a time when many food companies were busy getting ready for the new 20ppm labelling legislation, which came into force 1st January 2012. Walkers were no exception: they were removing the “suitable for coeliacs” message from their product labelling, and adding advisory statements on packs to the effect that the crisps were being made in a factory in which gluten-containing ingredients were present.

And people were frustrated about this. Among them was Debra Samuel, mother to a teenage lad with coeliac disease whose favourite crisps were now out of bounds. Debra started a Facebook campaign and petition to ask Walkers to reconsider. The FB campaign is still active, and the petition still seems to be live too.

In the Coeliac Kids post I linked to above you can see the full standard response Walkers were sending out to customers last year. You can also see my comment regarding the following line in that response:

“The change to legislation means that from 2012, food manufacturers will no longer be able to use a ‘suitable for Coeliacs’ claim, as this statement is being phased out.”

As I suspected at the time, and am certain of now, this statement is not and never was being phased out. The new legislation allows it to be used to accompany a gluten-free claim on a product meeting the sub-20ppm criterion. It’s a supporting statement, if you like.

In November, I emailed Walkers as a gluten-free customer, and was sent the same standard response, with the same erroneous line claiming the ‘suitable for coeliacs’ statement was being withdrawn.

At around this time, Debra told me of a meeting between Coeliac UK and PepsiCo (Walkers’ parent company). In a message she sent out to supporters of her campaign, she wrote:

“…their processing procedures make it difficult to commit to making certain flavours of the crisps gluten-free. It seems that they spray the flavourings on to the potato crisps and they say that it is difficult to clean the sprays between different flavourings. They are looking into ways that this can be done and they do seem to be willing to try and make the process gluten-free…”

So what appears to have happened is that Walkers could meet the pre-2012 legislation criterion for gluten-free of sub-200ppm levels for some of their crisps, but would no longer be able to guarantee the stricter sub-20ppm from 2012. I’m not quite sure how they came to decide this. Did they send various batches off for testing and the results were well above 20ppm?

I tried to find this out, among other things. I contacted Walkers’ publicist on the 28th November to request an interview with a relevant spokesperson. I wanted to ask them about this stuff, but also to ask why Walkers were telling people the ‘suitable for coeliacs’ statement was being phased out.

After chasing, I heard back on the 7th December. I was reassured that my query had been passed on, and that it was being dealt with. I phoned the publicist just before Christmas to follow up again, and got the same reassurance. Walkers had my number and would call me.

I’ve not received a call. I got bored of waiting and here I am.

Where are we now?

The fuss seems to have died down. I spy occasional queries or comments on chat forums – many from coeliacs saying they react to Walkers and advising others to strictly avoid them – and I see the odd blog post too, most recently this one by Debra Doherty of the Awkward Eater blog, which states that manufacturing methods at Walkers’ factories haven’t changed, meaning trace gluten levels in the crisps are unlikely to be any different to pre-2012 levels. She says:

“The new law, in an effort to clarify allergen labelling has only confused thousands of gluten-freers… However, if you have previously eaten Walkers crisps (at least the ones previously labelled as gluten free) and have been fine afterwards, then continue to do so.”

I’d take issue with this. Regarding the second remark, damage caused by gluten can be silent, so you may be unaware of it. Feeling fine after eating is no guarantee that you actually are fine, sadly. And as far as the previous comment goes, the new legislation’s aim wasn’t to ‘clarify allergen labelling’, but instead to reflect the stricter gluten-free standards Codex recommended in order to protect the health of those with coeliac disease throughout Europe.

Of Walkers Debra reports:

“They regret that the new law has caused so much confusion.”

Hm. I can’t help feeling that Walkers are trying to distance themselves slightly from the responsibility for that confusion and pin it instead on the supposedly difficult law. This isn’t wholly dissimilar to the way their ‘suitable for coeliacs’ ‘being phased out’ statement appears to give the impression, at least to me, of helplessness and blamelessness in the face of Europe-sent legislation.

This all feels disingenuous: the law doesn’t compel anyone to remove gluten-free or ‘suitable for coeliacs’ claims – it just places stricter demands on companies before they can carry on doing so. And is the law so confusing anyway? Arguably – not really. Here you go:

Under 20ppm = gluten free / suitable for coeliacs.
20ppm-100ppm = very low gluten / suitable for most coeliacs.

That’s pretty much it.

Now, granted, allergy labelling as a whole can be confusing, as my blog last month illustrated, but the sometimes difficult rules governing stuff like allergens and allergen boxes and the exemptions of certain gluten grain-derived ingredients (glucose syrup etc) have been in place for years – and have little to do with the legislation under examination here.

The Walkers case does not have many complicating elements – aside perhaps the ‘made in a factory’ warning. It’s a straightforward case of a product no longer being able to meet a particular standard, and having to remove a statement claiming that standard.

So would it be harsh of me to suggest Walkers didn’t communicate these changes effectively to consumers? The law was passed in 2009, it’s worth recalling, so there has been a three-year transition period during which all this could have been thought about, discussed, planned and implemented in the best way. Why didn’t they just tell people they could no longer meet the levels considered safe, and that’s why they had to remove the ‘suitable for coeliacs’ – rather than allow consumers to infer that the law was compelling them to?

So who suffers?
There are arguably lots of victims here: coeliacs who have fewer choices (especially kids), Coeliac UK at having to field what I imagine were hundreds of queries from confused coeliacs and, yes, Walkers at having to answer possibly many more queries, as well as complaints, all of which are a drain to staff resources. It’s only fair to point out that Walkers are under no obligation to provide for coeliacs, although from what I learned from Debra (Samuel) and CUK, they seem at least open to looking into the possibility and willing to engage. Surely a positive sign.

So what next? Matt of the Hungry Boyfriend blog posted a comment about Walkers on this yesnobananas blog post recently. He said:

“Part of me … thinks I should vote with my feet and not buy these products out of principle.”

0.2% of the population are diagnosed coeliacs. I wonder whether there are enough feet to make a difference?

Edited on 23rd February 2012 to add:
Have just received confirmation of two things:
1/ That Coeliac UK are still in talks with Walkers, are ‘hopeful’ that changes will be made, and will keep people informed ‘as soon as we have any info we can share’.
2/ That Walkers are still, as of today, sending out the standard customer service message above, including the mistaken statement that ‘suitable for coeliacs’ is being phased out. 

29 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Very informative. We no longer buy any Walkers products, which is a shame, but as you say they are not obliged to cater for coeliacs.

    Reply
  2. Debra Samuel

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks for this interesting blog. As you said, the campaign 'Bring Back Gluten-Free Walkers Crisps' https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/bringbackgfwalkerscrisps/ is still open and we are still getting people joining, so it is still important issue to many people out there. We currently have 530 active members but in all, the campaign has had over 650 members subscribed. The petition is also open at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/walkers-crisps/.

    My take on the meetings between PepsiCo and Coeliak UK, as seen by their responses to me, is that, in all honesty, they're really not that bothered. They are a multi-national company and the effort and cost required to change their processes are unlikely to bring in enough profit. As you pointed out, they had 3 years to think about it.

    So no, I don't think 0.2% of the population is enough to make them change their minds. However, this is a very short-term way of thinking, in my view (but then, of course, I am biased!) as only 0.2% are diagnosed but 1% are believed to have Coeliac's and that is discounting the growing number of consumers who choose a gluten-free diet as a lifestyle choice. The supermarkets have obviously cottoned on to the fact that this is a growing market (and a very profitable one given the prices they charge their captive audience) – maybe we will see a sea-change in PepsiCo. However, I'm not holding my breath.

    Yet again, those with CD get the short end of the stick – whilst the changes in legislation are aimed at giving us a better understanding of what is safe to eat, in reality, it just means a reduction in choice and another knock-back in the ongoing life of someone living with Coeliac's Disease. Steps such as these, I am sure, in the long run will make us better and will help us, but in the short term, just mean that having come to terms with a life-changing food intolerance we are all back to learning how to read labels again.

    Thank you for highlighting the issue

    Reply
  3. Alex G

    Thanks Debra – I didn't realise the FB campaign was still open, but will make the correction in the post.

    You're right of course: it's 0.2% now but actually 1% and with the research on gluten sensitivity emerging and the increasing demands of elective gluten-free'ers the market will grow further in years to come.

    Perhaps the reduction in choice will motivate other crisp manufacturers to try to fill the need in the market?

    Reply
  4. Siân

    Interesting post. I no longer buy Walkers Crisps and this makes life difficult sometimes. They were an emergency snack for me from the work vending machine/canteen when working late or dashing between meetings and I simply didn’t have time to find something healthier and gluten free – this trip always requires a minimum of 15 minutes out of the office which is often not an option!

    On the flip side, when not at work, it has made me search out crisp manufacturers who explicitly state they are suitable for Coeliacs such as the Darling Spuds brand which are a million times tastier than Walkers.

    It would be extremely beneficial if Coeliac UK could publish updates and/or minutes of the meetings they hold on behalf of their members with companies such as PepsiCo/Walkers in these types of discussions. Unless I’m missing it, I haven’t seen this information but I’d like to know the progress of any lobbying they do on behalf of their members.

    Reply
  5. Alex G

    Thanks for comment, Sian. Have included a footnote explaining what I've heard from Coeliac UK.

    Reply
  6. John

    Alex,

    Great article. (Although I hold a different view to what I perceive as the theme/tone of the article – this is only because of my personal views of the particular products).

    I also agree with Sian – re: Darling Spuds and further want to add that I believe that Coeliacs should seek to support companies that are producing products of this nature – so go on everybody ….. buy a bag of Darling Spuds! (if I may be so bold as to make a product 'plug' on your blogsite)

    My main comment on this article is that I fully and unequivocally endorse your comment "damage caused by gluten can be silent, so you may be unaware of it". This is particularly relevant and in my (albeit humble) opinion – is deserving of a full article in itself. Perhaps you might give this some consideration??

    Regards

    John
    Twitter: @GfLifeIreland

    Reply
  7. Alex G

    John – sounds like you have a more interesting view-driven post up your sleeve… if I may be so bold as to suggest you write a blog!

    Research for silent gluten-related damage, I imagine, would be a large undertaking – if you're suggesting an evidence-based analysis of where we stand? Certainly a possibility – but sadly blogging doesn't pay and just writing the Walkers post has taken many weeks!

    Thanks for commenting.

    Reply
  8. John

    Alex,

    I wouldn't write a blog on the specific product. If I was to blog, I could be dragged down a road I don't wish to go. All I will say is that, personally, I am happy, in this particular case, that the manufacturer has taken its present position (again this is a personal view).

    Point well made and taken on the time it takes to write a blog!

    John
    Twitter: @GfLifeIreland

    Reply
  9. Reading this I wonder if it foreshadows what we will see in the US once the FDA finally comes up a definition for "gluten free" on a label. I do expect that some companies that previously labeled products "gluten free" will drop the label because of cross contamination issues. But the bottom line is that if they can't make a product that tests to less than 20 ppm of gluten (the proposed standard) they won't be able to call it gluten free. While we might mourn the loss of some products, as gluten-free consumers in the UK seem to be mourning the Walkers Crisps, it's really a good thing to hold all products to a defined standard.

    Reply
  10. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

    I guess that, as ever, you guys have covered the subject pretty thoroughly. My thoughts?

    The groundswell of gluten/dairy-free discontent over the gluten (and dairy) 'pollution' of products such as crisps which should, by nature, be gf and df, is definitely growing. From small seeds……

    I am sure that Walkers ain't too bothered right now – but a bit of negative publicity and a little more growth in the freefrom market and the brighter cookies in marketing might start to re-evaluate the situation. Fingers crossed!

    Reply
  11. Alex G

    Thanks Amy – I think it will be very interesting to see what happens in the States, especially with such a vast market.

    Thanks M – I think perhaps when allergen thresholds are introduced for nut, dairy and perhaps others, a lot of companies are going to have to do that re-evaluation…

    Reply
  12. Debra Samuel

    The views here have been really interesting and I agree with most of them – especially those about promoting those products which are making the effort to go the whole hog and keep gluten-free. Marketing these products though will take more than just a little effort to ever get to the market saturation that Walkers have – and that really was the main thrust of my original campaign. Not that there weren't gluten-free alternatives (and very yummy they are too – anyone tried Levi Root's Reggae Reggae Crisps? GF with more than a hint of kick!) but that Walkers are ubiquitous and can be obtained nearly everywhere.

    Reply
  13. Alex G

    Thanks Debra – Saara (CoeliacStudent on Twitter) is I think collecting recommendations for GF crisps on her site (www.glutenfreestudentcookbook.co.uk) so I'll let her know about Reggae Reggae crisps.

    Reply
  14. Debra Samuel

    Alex,

    Can I mention that as a result of the Facebook campaign, I also set up a group – Gluten Free and Me – https://www.facebook.com/groups/215283895205973/ – a discussion group for people who follow a gluten-free lifestlye. It is a rowdy and bantering group and welcomes all-comers.

    Also I have set up a group for kids on a gluten-free diet if any of your readers have younger children who would like to chat with other kids like them. It is not a forum for adults but for kids to have somewhere to chat, make friends, let off steam, and be with other kids who actually understand what they’re going through.

    Thanks

    Debra

    Reply
  15. Debra Samuel

    Oops, forgot to leave the link for Gluten Free Kids – https://www.facebook.com/groups/215283895205973/#!/groups/glutenfreekids/

    Reply
  16. Frugal Wife

    Hi Alex

    Interesting blog post on this subject. I've stopped buying Walkers too as a result of the change in their labelling, although I suspect there's not any difference between December's crisps and January's crisps.

    I'm interested in the comments made about inadvertently consuming gluten and the dangers of this – perhaps this varies regionally, but as a diagnosed Coeliac I visit a dietitian annually (NHS) and have my blood tested for gluten levels. If there was accidental gluten being consumed, wouldn't this be picked up?

    Fortunately (unfortunately?) I don't have the ability to consume gluten and get away with it – any contamination in my food at all and about 45 minutes later, I vomit! Sorry for the over-share there :o)

    Best Wishes
    Frugal Wife

    Reply
  17. Alex G

    Hi Frugal Wife,

    Like you, I don't think there's any difference in the actual product either.

    My understanding is that while certain blood test markers may indicate gluten consumption, I'm not quite sure how reliable it is, especially in those newly diagnosed. I'm also not sure whether trace levels (which can damage the lining of the gut) necessarily show up markedly in bloods. I'll tweet it and see if any gastros can shed light…

    Imagine vomiting is a better result than passing through the gut and doing further damage. And no – no need to apologise for the TMI!

    Thanks for interesting comment,

    Alex

    Reply
  18. The Hungry Boyfriend

    Great blog again Alex and an issue that I'm sure has wound up more than a few coeliacs. My symptoms aren't that strong so I may be unaware if there were trace amounts of gluten in walkers. I was also under the impression that an annual blood test should show up any gluten levels. It's a debate that a number of people appear interested in.

    Tesco which granted don't do the range of flavours that walkers do manage to be gluten free. I find that with a lot of tesco products, e.g. chutneys and things there own brand is often gluten free where as the branded ones don't seem able to do this.

    Matt
    Twitter: @hungryboyfriend

    Reply
  19. Alex G

    Thanks Matt – yeah, since writing the blog I can tell it's wound up quite a few coeliacs just by the 'why aren't walkers GF any more?' searches that are landing people on this page!

    I'm still not sure about the blood tests and how useful an indicator they are. I may have to come back to this when I have more time.

    Does Saara have the Tesco's ones on her list?

    Reply
  20. Alexa Brown

    Hi Alex (and all),

    This is probably a very silly question but if, for example, Ready Salted Walkers Crisps were labelled as ok before the label change, and didn't cause any symptoms, AND we're assuming they've changed only the packaging and not the product, then do I really have to stop eating them?!

    Other Walkers flavours make me very ill for a day or so and so of course I wouldn't eat those, but for something that was ok before and seems ok now … am I just clutching at crispy straws?

    Alexa

    Reply
  21. Alex G

    Hi Alexa –

    It's so tough. Some would recommend you do; others would be more relaxed.

    Walkers can't guarantee sub 20ppm crisps. Previously they could guarantee sub 200ppm. So we could assume the crisps are likely to be 20-200ppm now.

    Worst case scenario: they're 200ppm. At 30g (is it 30g?) a bag of crisps, that's 6mg of gluten, by my calculation, absolute maximum.

    Studies suggest up to 10mg a day is safe – but if you're eating other foods with trace gluten in them, it could take you over that.

    As I said in the post, no symptoms doesn't mean no damage. It's very interesting that ready salted is the only flavour you can go for, because as I understand it the contamination risk comes with spraying flavours onto the crisps – and I presume ready salted don't undergo that process as they're plain. That may explain why you can tolerate them.

    Not sure if that's answered your Q? Wish I could be more helpful.

    A.

    Reply
  22. Farah Mendlesohn

    I only discovered they were off the menu *after* I got sick (I've been gf for fifteen years and eat very little processed food so it took no time at all to figure out the culprit). I tried again with plain crisps and still had a reaction. What I suspect is that now they have chosen not to meet the criteria, the production line is simply that bit less careful.

    As I'm lactose intolerant, crisps were pretty much the last safe snack food I could get at work. On the up side, I've lost six pounds since January. I suspect this is not unrelated.

    Thanks for the recs for gf crisps above but they have to be available, and most just aren't.

    Reply
  23. Alex G

    Farah – that's an excellent point about the production line, which I'd just not considered at all. And yes – you're right about the availabilities (or lack of), but I guess it's a question of supply and demand: they'll supply, if coeliacs demand…

    Alexa – may be worth reconsidering the safety of the ready salted for you in light of the possibility that controls may now be laxer.

    A.

    Reply
  24. Eleanor@Eatinglikeahorse

    Very interesting post… especially to hear that they're blaming the new standards to blur the fact that they can't guarantee the products are gluten-free which begs the question why were they labelled suitable for coeliacs in the first place? It's irritating when a product says it can't be guaranteed GF because of manufacturing processes but it would be worse if that wasn't there and people were getting ill as a result. I look forward to hearing what happens!

    Reply
  25. Alex G

    Thanks Eleanor – they labelled suitable for coeliacs because they could guarantee sub 200ppm, which was the threshold before this year, and removed it because they can't guarantee sub 20ppm, the new threshold as of January 2012.

    But yes, like you I sense they're trying to focus the attention on the standards, rather than their manufacturing processes.

    Reply
  26. Derynda

    When you look at how much profit can presumably be made from a finely sliced potato ( Look at how much per gram it is sold for) you would think some of the profit might be used to make the sites suitable for preparing at least one type which was GF! . Walkers are now owned by PepsiCo so I hold out little hope of finding a heart in the huge conglomerate.

    Reply
  27. Alex G

    Very good point, Derynda – thanks for commenting.

    Reply
  28. Peter Edwards

    Walkers were my favourite crisps, though I may not be able to eat them any longer. At least Walkers have been pro active in using a statement that is easier than may contain. Produced In a Factory that handles, Wheat, Rye or Barley.

    In my opinion, a company knows fine well whether products contain Gluten or not. The May Contain statement is not very clear and should be removed.

    It is the Government that is taking a cop out and making things unclear, just like hyping the prices of Gluten Free Produce up. That Contains no Gluten so it will cost £3.00 v That Does not Contain Gluten, £1.00.

    Charging 3 to 4 times the amount for a product is a disgrace, even though I eat very little snack foods or bread produce it is nice every now and them to have a treat.

    Though staples that are nearly always on every ones shopping list are Cereals. Some of these are even more costly than bread. It may not look like it when you compare a Gluten Free Loaf with a Loaf containing Gluten, but look at the size and you can easily work out the true expense involved.

    Reply
  29. Anonymous

    I believe ten acre is not suitable for some as it contains allergens.. perhaps soy…

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

Close