Dear FreeFrom-ers: yes, you can have some more. From, (a few) supermarkets

Two months ago on the 1st October I wrote this blog post asking you all to tell me which gluten-free, dairy-free and other-free options – especially lunch options – you would like to see the main supermarkets offer in 2013 – a kind of ‘free from wishlist’. If you don’t remember it or haven’t yet read it, it’s worth doing so, just to get your bearings before what follows, and to read some of the imaginative suggestions and thoughtful feedback those following restricted diets took the time to supply.

On the 19th October, I wrote to six major supermarkets – Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose – to tell them of the post, and the comments, and offering to send them a brief summary of the suggestions, with an invitation to submit 500 words towards a follow-up blogpost in response to them.

I told them:

We’d be interested to hear of, for instance, any plans for ‘free from’ lunches in the new year, views and thoughts on the suggestions put forward, and whether any might be in development. But any relevant comments and insight are welcome.”

I had planned (and started to write) a detailed explanation of what happened over the subsequent six weeks – the emails, the calls, the reminders, the conversations, the responses, and so on – but changed my mind, not only because I didn’t have a record of every single communication, but also as it would be quite long-winded, and difficult to be fair to all six retailers were I to edit a review of the process into a manageable length. I’m not withholding this information for any other reason, and it may yet come out, either in the comments or in a subsequent post, largely depending on what the response is to this one.

So it’s enough to say this for now: my dealings with all were friendly, most voiced a willingness to take part, and I am genuinely satisfied all had sufficient opportunity to respond to the issues put to them as communications were established with them, indicating that no important emails had been lost or phone messages unheard.

On the 16thNovember, I sent a polite final mail, explaining that while I was reluctant to set a deadline for participation in something optional for what is essentially a niche and specialist blog with limited reach, I felt I had to in order to make progress. That was set for Friday 30th November, and I told my contacts I’d give them a final gentle prod by phone a week or so before that, if appropriate – but that I would leave them in peace after that. And I did so.

Did they respond? See below. Did they answer the questions posed and tackle the issues raised? You be the judge.

Asda submitted their response on 20th November. They said:

“It is always good to get feedback and we try and talk to customers as often as possible to get their views on how we can improve the range at Asda so thank you for responses.

“Space in store is limited for Free From products so getting the right products for customers is essential. In our own label range we are currently developing new products for next year.

The reason for this is that we are confident that we can develop products that taste great,in fact all the Free From products are tested by customers and have to be approved by them before they are allowed into the range. The other focus for us is around price and making Free From as affordable as possible and driving the price of the product down as much as we can but at the same time working closely with the suppliers to make sure the product is also great quality.

“The new range will include some of the ‘convenience’ options that some of the respondents have mentioned. We also recognise that many people with intolerances are looking for more ingredients based products that can be used to make meals for the whole family. The other thing that our customers have told us they want is to have more products that are free from more than one thing as many have multiple intolerances eg. gluten, wheat and dairy. The other thing we are doing is looking at all the current own label lines that are already in store to see where we can improve the quality and taste.

“The new ranges will be in May 2013 and will also include some new branded products as well as the new own label lines.”

(For Asda’s FreeFrom section online, click here.)

Sainsbury’s submitted their response on 30th November. Gemma Crump, FreeFrom Brand Manager, said:

“We’ve been ploughing through the post and the comments – a great bit of insight into what people look for in terms of pre-made, gluten free lunch options. I hope you can appreciate that we cannot share precisely what it is that we have planned for the future in this category. That said, below are all the products that fit the bill. As you can imagine, we are constantly scoping out opportunities to grow and expand our offers.

“After all, we are keen to reach our goal to be number one retailer for customers with allergies or intolerances by the year 2020 (check out page five of our Best forFood and Health Factsheet, which tells you a bit more about our goals for our freefrom range). We’re well on our way to achieving that goal, with the largest range of freefrom products helping customers with allergies and intolerances already on our shelves!

“Finally, in addition to all the products below, we have a huge amount of products in our other ranges (for example by Sainsburys), that are made without gluten and without milk. These are listed in the product guidance lists to help ease the shopping experience for people with allergies.”

“And now, without further ado, the current selection of pre-made, gluten free lunch options (and snacks of course!)

“Café

· freefrom Chocolate Brownie

· freefrom cherry and almond slices

· freefrom mince pie

Food Services (branded)

· freefrom branded sandwiches (chicken and egg)

Grocery aisle (lunch time solutions you can buy in our grocery section)

· We offer bread rolls

· Meals in pouches: tomato and basil soup as well as freefrom chicken hotpot

Grocery Snacks

· Freefrom cake slices (brownies, coffee and walnut, lemon, fruit, ginger)

· Blueberry muffins

· Toffee and Nut bars

· Breakfast muesli bars

· Dairy free chocolate bars (orange, crispy, and plain)

Frozen Section (all microwaveable)

· freefrom Beef lasagne

· freefrom Penne arrabiata

· freefrom Pasta and meatballs

“Thank you again for giving us the chance to respond.”

(For Sainsbury’s FreeFrom section online, click here.)

Waitrose submitted their response this morning, 3rd December:

“Waitrose believes you can still have an enjoyable and varied diet if you are avoiding gluten and our nutrition team has been working hard to launch a wider range of gluten free foods than we ever have before, including with a tasty gluten free mince pie for the festive season!

“We’ve also recently launched two new sandwiches, a Gluten Free Chicken Salad and a Gluten Free Ham Salad for an effortless and tasty lunch.

“By incorporating products from our Waitrose LOVE Life Free From range with foods that are naturally free from gluten, we aim to make it easy for our customers to find and create delicious gluten free meals and snacks.

“The range in store currently includes LOVE Life Free From bread options, such as our selection of white and seeded rolls, loaves and petit pains, white and brown Ciabatta . You can try our LOVE Life Free From Porridge Oats to make a warming breakfast, or to toast and use as a topping for homemade fruit crumbles. Other breakfast or snack options include our LOVE Life Free From plain and fruited English muffins, Hot Cross Buns, Scotch Pancakes and Fruit Scones.

“You can make some delicious pasta dishes with our LOVE Life Free From penne and spaghetti. If you fancy making a home-made lasagne, you can use the LOVE Life Free From Lasagne Sheets.

“If you want some gluten free sweet treats, we have a selection in the LOVE Life Free From range to choose from, including Chocolate Muffins, Chocolate Chip Cookies and Belgian Chocolate Brownies. For some traditional favourites we’ve got Cherry Bakewells, Country Cake Slices, Date and Walnut Slices, Fruity Flapjacks, Shortcakes and Oat and Raisin Cookies.

“If you shop or browse online, we have made it easier for you to identify which Waitrose products are suitable for a gluten free diet by providing you with a comprehensive list which you can download from our website.

“We will continue to work on expanding our Free From range to offer a wider choice to our customers and our nutritionist team are always on hand to answer any questions our customers may have. For those interested in learning some new cookery skills as well as picking up some exciting new recipe ideas, we have a Gluten Free cooking course every month at our Cookery School. We also liaise with Coeliac UK to ensure our products that are suitable for those avoiding gluten are listed within the annual Food & Drink Directory.”

(Waitrose’s Food Allergy and Intolerance section is here.)

Morrison’s did not submit a response

(Morrison’s FreeFrom section on their site is here.)

Marks and Spencer did not submit a response.

(M&S’s ‘made without wheat’ section is here.)

Tesco did not submit a response

(For Tesco Free From online, click here.)

I’d like to thank all supermarkets for dealing with me.

Thanks particularly to Asda and Sainsbury’s who responded to my initial approach very quickly and positively.

No other comments from me just yet, but I very much look forward to yours.

13 Comments

  1. Elsie

    Frustrating but not very surprising I suppose. My take from the majority of the comments was that there was a need for more savoury ready choices & better labelling of existing ready to go foods (ie. that the dressing contains gluten but the rest of the salad is gluten free) but I don't feel that has been acknowledged in the response, especially with regard to the repeated suggestions of a pasta or rice based salad. Interesting that Asda acknowledge that space is limited for free from (indeed they have reduced it in my local store so I just don't bother visiting anymore), but then they pack it with biscuits & cakes. With regard to cost, just this weekend in Sainsbury I took a photograph of 2 gf chocolate brioche for £1.99 and a bag of 8 'ordinary' brioche for just about the same cost with the intention of emailing to ask why the price difference. While I do acknowledge that there are higher production costs for gluten free, I do find it hard to see past the monopoly on pricing set by the supermarkets – could Sainsbury not do 4 gf brioche for £1.99, could Genius not do 4 croissants for the almost £3 they currently charge for 2? Sorry, this has turned into a bit of a rant but I am disappointed with their lack of engagement.

    Reply
  2. sugarpuffish

    I'm with Elsie on this one, not surprised by the response. I'm not interested in cakes for lunch and I bet all of those contain egg. I don't eat meat so the sandwich options are useless to me. I will continue to take a packed lunch everywhere I go for the foreseeable future. As for space is limited, I see no reason why it should be limited, they could open up more shelf space but I'm guessing it boils down to profits/sales compared to "normal" food.

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  3. Hullaballou

    Like Elsie, I am seriously underwhelmed by the lack of response from some of the major players here. Am really surprised that Tesco didn't bother replying. Usually, they are quite good at getting back to you, if you ask a question on Twitter. These supermarkets seem to forget that we also buy their other products – not just Free From (after all not all members of our family are in need of Free From food) and so if they can engage with us and gain our loyalty, there will be repeat custom!

    I'm interested that you didn't contact Ocado. Although they are not available everywhere, they have quite a good Free From range online (which they are constantly expanding) and all the dietary info is provided for you. The only drawback is the delivery charge, but if you get a good deal, like we did, and take into account that you are making a saving on petrol, then it makes it really quite worthwhile.

    The good thing about them is that they don't waste time on their own Free From brands, but stock products that are really good and hard to get hold of elsewhere (like Pudology). Also, Ocado are always open to suggestions and have started stocking several products that we (along with others) have put forward. At the moment they are the only 'store' that I feel is listening to its customers, rather than just making excuses!

    Reply
  4. What Allergy

    What gets me is that these supermarkets want to take over the market leaving no room the small, independent companies we have grown to love and depend on. It seems that they often see something they think is cool, copy it, but not as well, then they have a lovely new products, stop stocking the other brand and charge more for it. Their product is usually not as good and often not suitable for as many people I tend to buy Free from stuff as a treat and stick to the less processed stuff as I seem to react even to some processed foods, even when the ingredients suggest I should be OK. So I spend A LOT on just meat, fish, veg and fruit. That is the bulk of my diet. I make my own cakes, biscuits etc. as they taste better, cost less and never disagree with me.

    I have found Budgens and The Co-op to be surprisingly good and I can usually find what I need there. They often have what I call 'accidentally' free from stuff like sausages and crisps which are cheaper than the freefrom branded alternatives at the big players. Don't get me wrong, I do love M&S, Sainsbury's and Waitrose, but they are for treats as the products are so expensive. I appreciate they involve higher standards and strict processing and are bound to cost more but sometimes it's just too much.

    I recently bought some GF oats from sainsburys. It cost about £3 for 500g of oats. Compare that to the normal bog standard oats which cost about £1 for a huge 1kg bag it is just nonsensical. The oats were also mostly dust. Sainsbury's responded very swiftly and even gave me a refund but they didn't justify why their bag of oat dust should cost quite so much. Since I actually have a wheat intolerance and am not allergic or coeliac I'll be continuing the buy the sack of proper jumbo oats in future.

    I am also still left with the dilemna of getting what I need, when I need it but often from about 4-5 different retailers. I also shop online for freefrom stuff at Goodness Direct. I can guarantee to find the chocolate I like, the vegetable stock cubes that are the only ones I can use and good things like Molasses and tinned soup that is free from all nasties. I cannot get these elsewhere. This is fine. This is what I do to stay healthy and free from allergic reactions but the major retailers make it harder for us sometimes when they dont' quite get that we want choice too, not just their own brand.

    Reply
  5. Emma Louise

    The standard response seems to be "we would like to look willing to help but only if you meet our criteria for what we want to sell". The impression I get is that customers should be grateful that a store is offering a small selection of own brand products which usually meet just one food allegy or intolerance requirement. There is defineately a lack of knowledge and understanding behind the product lines and customer service responses (if any response at all).
    Being a small online retailer myself, I would love to be able to provide products to meet everyones needs, however, when it comes to food shopping online isn't always suitable (not possible to have the product immediately). Despte being able to order a large number of delicious, specialist products online I still need to visit a supermarket. That is where the frustration returns as you are constantly reminded of all of the above problems.
    Eating out is still a huge problem. Until companies do more thorough and genuine research I don't expect the situation to improve.

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  6. littlemissedgluten

    I literally burst out laughing at the "Space in store is limited for Free From products" response from Asda… It still bemuses me somewhat to find that these large supermarkets who have aisle upon aisle of shop space only seem to allocate maybe a quarter of one side of an aisle to Free From items (ridiculous when a lot of supermarkets have entire aisles (both sides) stocking foam/fruit sweets and chocolates)… kind of makes you wonder where the priority stands regarding the dietary requirements of their customers…

    Additionally, while great that Sainsbury's supplied a list of items available as gluten free lunches, the options weren't very diverse, and appeared to be somewhat unhealthy.

    Another problem I have is the cost of GF/FF options, usually about 3x the price of the regular equivalent, I've even contacted some supermarket chains myself to enquire about this and was informed that the cost has to cover more expensive ingredients, a wider variety of ingredients per product, and stringent quality control / cross-contamination testing, which even though understandable, still didn't feel like a satisfactory answer.

    I think it's also the range of products that are stocked for Free From, for example, Sainsbury's have stopped selling the DS gluten-free pizzas because they have brought out their own range, which to me is just daft, why are we only allowed one option of gluten free pizza when there are 5-10 options for those without intolerances or allergies? Etc…

    Reply
  7. Elsie

    Hear hear LittleMissedGluten! My local Waitrose has stopped stocking DS yorkshire puddings. I pointed out that they had a whole cabinet of standard frozen yorkshire puddings from different manufacturers, yet couldn't allow a little more space for gf yorkshire puddings as our special little half a cabinet of gluten free from was already full.

    Reply
  8. Alex G

    Thanks for all the terrific, thoughtful responses above, everybody.

    Like you, I was a little disappointed overall, and I’d hoped the experiment might have yielded more. I agree that some of the most interesting observations made in the comments to the original post weren’t addressed, and this is a shame.

    To answer a few points:

    I didn’t contact Ocado because the initial idea concerned lunch options at supermarkets: ie going out and being unable to find what you wanted when you wanted to pick up a bite at midday.

    Regarding Asda, I got the impression that the free from team were trying to push for more space for ‘free from’ internally, so hopefully that will come to fruition. Customer feedback is important for this sort of thing, and I do feel confident that they have listened to you all here.

    Re the Sainsbury’s and DS pizza saga, Alexa at the YesNoBananas blog covered this recently – http://yesnobananas.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/same-old-same-old and my colleague Michelle at FoodsMatter.com blogged on it too – http://www.foodsmatter.com/blog/sainsburys-pizzas-in-the-firing-line-again

    Thanks again. Both Asda and Sainsbury's said they would follow the comments here so feel free to keep making constructive suggestions, and hopefully at least some will be picked up.

    Alex

    Reply
  9. glutenfreeb.com

    Very interesting, although annoying when you have to 'read between the lines' of standard PR gumph to figure out the intent of the response!

    I'm not sure any actually responded to the main points made in your consultation. What's missing is convenient, fresh, healthy gluten free lunch options you could pick up on the move – the free from aisle in the big supermarket isn't the answer to that. As many of the original responses to your consultation suggested, the sandwiches in M&S and Waitrose (and apparently Sainsbury's, although I've never seen them) are a big step in the right direction, but what we really want is the gluten taken out of the other things in the lunch chiller that don't need them (e.g. salads, sushi) to give more variety – it's not so much about creating specific 'free from' options that mean this internal battle for aisle space. M&S seem the best at this to me. Can't find a salad without pasta in Tesco for love nor money!

    Additionally, what we need is a focus on provision from smaller inner city branches (metros/littles/locals) where you are more likely to be grabbing a bite to eat on the move, and don't have a 'free from' aisle; as opposed to the bigger branches where I do the weekly shop.

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  10. wutheringbites

    Hello!
    Firstly, well done to Alex for putting this research all together, it's appreciated.

    What i'm annoyed about mostly, as mentioned previous, is the sheer amount of brownies, cakes and ridiculously overpriced sweet things they offer in freefrom ranges. This is ridiculous. I would rather pick up some Doves Farm GF flour and make my own, much cheaper and -even more convenient in some respect. If i see another type of brownie added to the freefrom list, i'd feel like abandoning the range all together. Do they just think we sit on the sofa all day and binge eat?

    I'm disappointed that there are not enough inventive salads catered to gf and df- and i really hope they sort the labelling on sushi too. When i do get a gf convenience sandwich once in a while from M&S, i really do appreciate having this option- but it always annoys me that they haven't spent enough time on development and testing out how they can tackle alot of tolerances in one thing. The mixing of quinoa and cous cous in a salad makes me feel like screaming in the supermarket. Great another option for gluteny peeps.

    rant over.

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  11. IdeologyLite

    As others have noted: the fundamental problem we face when dealing with supermarkets is the enormous overemphasis on junk and 'convenience' foods in Free From sections.

    As an example, I've watched supermarket after supermarket stop stocking GF soy sauce which we'd need to use to make almost any Far Eastern dish – this is despite that the fact you can get around six different varieties of normal 'shoyu' soy sauce in almost every supermarket that I've seen do this. Likewise, I have to travel to another city entirely (from Bath to Bristol) just to get my hands on GF pastry because my local Sainsbury's have stopped stocking it.

    Meanwhile, the Free From sections are chock-full of absolute junk: biscuits, pretzels, hot cross buns, jammy dodgers, wafers, cakes, mince pies and so on. Similarly the GF frozen section is filled with mediocre pasties, pizzas, pies and fish fingers.

    As a coeliac and IBS sufferer, and like many others with food intolerances, allergies and food-related autoimmune diseases, the two most important factors when shopping for food are nutrition (since exclusionary diets often result in nutritional deficiencies) and cost (since Free From products have such high profit margins). It's only by being able to make large meals, spread over multiple days, that you can tailor your meals according to your dietary needs, while spreading the cost involved with such a specific diet.

    Supermarkets who focus entirely on selling high-priced Free From are essentially forcing their shoppers elsewhere. At best, their approach is naive, greedy, uninformed or lazy; at worst, it can be downright dangerous as we – and our children – risk facing further nutritional deficiencies by making it more difficult to tailor our diets correctly.

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  12. L and J

    Thanks Alex for trying to prod the supermarkets into action! In our opinion, some should definitely be called mediocre-markets in relation to their response or lack thereof.

    It's a shame that, as earlier responders note, most seem to have missed the point in relation to what we want when we're out and about. We're after easy to find, reliable supply of foods that are suitable for a single meal. Non-freefrom shoppers are not expected to be happy with the 'option' to buy a whole packet of whatever – they buy a handy, lunch snack… and some (perhaps many) prefer savoury options. We're on the look out for felafels, hummus, dips, dippers, cooked sausages, pasties, sausage rolls… on top of tasty salads 'like they used to be'… that is, fish/meat/cheese/coleslaw/egg/other with salad leaves (or potato salad) and a sachet of dressing which can/not be used as required.

    Luckily for us, we don't have to rely on finding food when out and about very often but it would be lovely to have the option NOT to have to take our 'Justin case' bag with us when we do!

    Reply
  13. Marta

    What a great initiative. We have to keep the supermarkets aware of our needs. I have written to them before when they stop selling a great gluten free food. I do hate that. I have also written in the past asking why they must put cheese on so many ready meals.

    I wonder how many buyers can't eat gluten so would really sympathise and meet our needs. Our favourite supermarkets in order are Sainsburys and Asda.

    Waitrose we have given up on. Andrew as a vegetarian had long given up on them. Small selection and get rid of our favourites like Isabel's pizza mix and Village Bakery bread – boo hoo! But good on them for introducing sandwiches, with no surprise they did not include a vegetarian one. So many gluten free vegetarians about.

    Marks and Spencers only good at Christmas. No Morrisons near us. There was only one reason to go to Tescos and that was their mushroom burgers that happened to be gluten free and amazing, but have not been able to find those for a couple of months now.

    Thanks for the good work in moving them along in the right direction.

    Reply

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