I was at a talk last year where the speaker, a small producer of gluten-free products, explained that the only testing they did on their products was via bought allergen-detection kits. In other words, they never sent their products for analytical testing at a laboratory. The speaker insisted that there was no need, as they operated gluten-free premises, and that gluten simply could not get in.
Gluten can quite often get in. Any allergen can ‘get in’. Gluten is quite often there, all right – albeit at very minute levels. There are no guarantees in life. Nothing can be 100% full proof. I later learned from a technician at a laboratory that such testing kits are unreliable*, and it made me wonder about the ‘gluten free-ness’ of the brands’ products – and those of other small brands who might cost-cut with cheaper tests, or who don’t send samples to labs quite as often as the bigger brands must surely do.
Brands such as Genius, whose latest recall of products – both their own, and those manufactured for supermarkets at their Scottish premises – has sparked an online frenzy the scale of which was last seen when that poor Kim lady unwittingly opened a bottle of previously-shaken champagne handed to her by some swine who had already glued a glass onto her backside.
The internet was not quite broken that time, and it was not quite broken this time, which was a pity, as I intermittently watched the fallout unfold over the subsequent days, mainly on Twitter and Facebook, thinking that I’d rather not rubberneck this one, this time. Genius, the supermarkets, and more regrettably, Coeliac UK, all got it in the neck. Understandable frustration is one thing, but unfounded allegations, abusive language, unjustified references to risks of cancer, and needless tagging – some of which is still ongoing, and including from some who ought to know better – is quite another.
It seems to me that Coeliac UK and Genius are both working hard to manage this latest crisis, and have done their best to respond to the hundreds of queries online, and no doubt many more to their helplines. What has happened precisely remains unclear. A level of gluten higher than the 20 parts per million gluten-free threshold level has been found in a number of products, and the problem appears to have been caused by a particular – but as yet unspecified – ingredient. The maximum level any product tested as was 80 parts per million – not gluten free, but nominally ‘very low gluten’, and far below the 200 parts per million that was in place only several years ago as gluten-free standard.
The risk to short-term health of 80ppm is low, and the risk to long-term health is negligible to zero. More sensitive coeliacs may react, though, and it seems some poor souls – including some children – appear to have, which of course is a rotten thing to happen. How Genius are handling those who say they have been made unwell, I don’t know.
Although as regular readers of this blog will know, I am not a fan of some of Genius’s marketing, I am a fan of Genius products – I can’t recall one I didn’t like on tasting – and I’m a particular admirer of Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, the founder, who I know a little personally, like very much, and has done great work in moving gluten-free food forward to a new standard. Those who have been diagnosed since the introduction of Genius bread may not appreciate this. Good gluten-free bread has only been around a few years. Bruce-Gardyne has a lot to do with it.
When I wrote about Genius’s ‘piegate’ recall in December, I was surprised and confused by their decision to not use social media to communicate the problem. I presume they learned from some of the criticisms that were levelled at them then, realised they were foolish, and addressed it this time – their social media communication, while not perfect, has been pretty good for this recall.
As they learned from that, I expect they will learn from this – whatever it is that went wrong. People boycotting their products – as many have threatened – doesn’t make sense to me, as they’ll surely be safer – with additional checks that may well be implemented – than they were before. And, I suspect, they’ll be safer than a lot of those smaller brands whose checking and controls may not be as strict or careful. It’s worth remembering that this problem was caught and identified, albeit a bit late. How many others might not be, I wonder?
Although it’s no consolation to those poor folk or their kids experiencing symptoms, who have been left confused and upset and insecure and angry, I expect Genius staff are feeling sick to the pits of their stomachs over what has happened, are struggling to cope with the fallout, and may have been left wondering whether being involved in the free from business is really worth the heartache and difficulty. Potential ‘free from’ entrepreneurs and start-ups out there may be thinking twice about entering the market because of this.
Not detracting from those who have become unwell and feel this is to blame, I do feel we should perhaps give Genius a break to some extent to get on with what they need to do. Needlessly attacking, speculating and kicking them when they’re down cannot be productive in the long run.
If you’ve been affected by a Genius product under recall, email their customer care team your number and they will call you back – firstname.lastname@example.org
* Thanks to Andrew at Romer who has pointed out that these kits can have a role, but if used should be validated with lab testing.
Thanks for posting this Alex. I can see where you are coming from and certainly respect and decency must prevail regardless of circumstances. However, I have to disagree with you on a few points. The handling of this once again, lacks conviction, clarity and honesty. The mysterious dry ingredient in the Genius statement doesn't help matters. If people (myself included I'm afraid) are speculating its because they haven't given us a proper answer. I hear many saying, it takes time to investigate and get all the relevant information. I'm sure that is true, but reading between the lines, they will have realised pretty quickly what the ingredient was- so why not tell consumers? Why not be honest about what’s happened?
The bigger issue is to do with the role of Coeliac UK and manufacturers. It is impossible for them to monitor and keep tabs on their production methods. Having the CUK Cross Grain mark is an assurance to customers about the safety of the product. Hence holding them to account on this. As consumers we pay for the privilege of having this re-assurance. Then we are told, it's impossible to guarantee, monitor or even implement the scheme they have told us is a guarantee that product is safe for Coeliac’s to consume. I think consumers are justified about feeling let down on this front.
As far as parents being angry- yes that’s true because watching your child be ill through no fault of their own, from a product you’ve purchased for them and reassured them was safe for them to eat, is not a very nice place to be. My daughter had eaten a pizza from Tesco for lunch- and I was very worried when I heard about the recall later that day. She would not have been made critically ill nor suffered any long term effects, but she would have had a very unpleasant reaction which would have triggered all sorts of psychological issues to do with eating food. It goes with the territory.
As adults we all understand that mistakes happen. We have to accept this. But large companies like this really should have excellent controls in place to detect problems before they hit the shelves. My guess is that growth has come too quickly for Genius and having a very large number of different products makes keeping control of quality and safety rather difficult. Financial pressures are also a concern and I can only hope that what’s happened isn’t a result of cutting corners. On the bright side, consumers tend to have very short memories and a few 3 for 2 offers will sort out any customers sitting on the fence. For those of us who are grumpy stick in the muds, it will mean a few more hours in the kitchen each week, making stuff from scratch.
As I mentioned on Twitter, I'm willing to admit that I may have been one of the people who overstepped the mark as a result of this. Generally speaking, I try to avoid going full coeliactivist where possible and keep a cool head. However, this event alarmed me more than most.
I think claims to boycott the brand are a bit daft (which I'll explain later) and using the 'c' word, the worst possible complication/diagnosis for a coeliac, may fall on the wrong side of melodramatic. That said, I do have some thoughts that I'd like to chime in with.
Initially, I didn't really pay much attention to this product recall. I don't eat a huge amount of dedicated gluten-free products, so I only tend to keep half an eye on events like this. However, this one was a little different, it wasn't just one brand this time. My naïve indifference slowly turned to horror as I saw supermarket after supermarket get pulled into this mess until every major UK supermarket was involved.
Why this angers me is not necessarily that Genius messed up, but that they have a de facto monopoly across certain free from products in all major supermarkets – and then messed up. More over, despite this monopoly, they didn't even have a dedicated facility (and kudos to Carly Talbot for her detective work on this).
We all know from the horse meat scandal few year ago that supply chains in supermarkets are very complex and lack transparency, but I wasn't aware that such a lack of transparency exists in the free from market, which is even more important considering the presence of allergens and the demographic of consumer (people with allergies!) likely to buy them. I'm not suggesting that the level of complexity of the free from market is quite the same as the horse meat scandal, that would be a (gluten-free) trifle unfair, but the lack of supply chain transparency revealed by the domino effect of these product recalls is profoundly worrying for some people, like me, previously unaware of this.
In terms of shopping, this week has seen my local FF section decimated by the recalls. A lot of people with food intolerances/allergies/autoimmune diseases often eat fairly predictably. They have a roster of go-to meals/snacks that they know and safely feed themselves and their family with, such a disturbance in stock due to the recall could cause all sorts of headaches with now having to scramble about for alternative recipes. In my case, one of my common items is pita bread – I make all sorts of meals with pita bread as the main carb source. Now, I can't get it anywhere. Local Tesco, nope. Sainsbury's, nope. Morrisson's, hell no (they're terrible, generally). I could try an Asda in the hope that they may have some in stock that aren't part of the recall, but it's nearly a 40 mile trip for us either way, passing through three counties. For pita bread! So, ultimately, no pita bread for me, anywhere in the two counties I live and work in. All because of one manufacturer. For how long, I don't know yet.
This is what makes the idea of boycotting their products so problematic: even if you had an earnest desire to do so, what are your other options beyond making them yourself?
Like you, I sincerely hope that Genius learn from this debacle, however, I fear that it won't really matter if they don't – there are no real competitors to turn to.
In terms of people actually being made ill by consumption of these contaminated products, that is even more important than the inconvenience.
Using myself as an example, whenever I get ill from gluten contamination or an IBS flare-up, it will inevitably mean time off work – and I hate it. Currently, I'm undergoing some changes in my professional life and, let's just say that taking days off work due to illness, at this particular time, would make an extraordinarily bad impression.
What if I had children and they lost school days due to these contaminated products? Well, crucially, exams are currently taking place across UK schools, so being too ill to attend, again – at this particular time, would cause all sorts of problems.
I hope that the above two examples explain some of the very possible complications that these products could've caused (and may already have, for some), without going too far down the road of melodrama.
Apologies for the long post. This is the first time in a while that I felt the need to speak up about coeliac matters, it's just a shame that it's not under more pleasant circumstances.
Nathan – aka ideologylite
To expand what I said on Twitter, there could be all sorts of reasons for not telling us – legal issues we can't guess, for instance. Is this mystery ingredient used elsewhere in the free from food industry? Is the supplier supplying others? If it was revealed what the product was, would there be speculation and panic about other products on the market? Genius may have the infrastructure to cope with what they're experiencing but the supplier or another brand may not. CUK may go into meltdown. It's possible this is currently being investigated. Crisis management has to be considered very carefully. NB. These are guesses – I categorically do not know – I'm just trying to illustrate there could be other reasons – although I don't think we know enough to say they're not being honest.
I think the word 'guarantee' brings us into territory where we argue over the meaning of words too much – as there cannot be any guarantees. I think the symbol is a guarantee that a product is produced a certain way and tested regularly (or whatever), rather than a guarantee that it is 100% certain to be GF. Whether the licensed products have 'failed' the terms and agreement of their license – if there are such things to fail – I'm afraid I don't know either…
I do agree parents have the right to be upset – I don't mean to detract from that. I can certainly appreciate the difficulties of potentially developing a psychological problem with eating food that has once made you ill. Rebuilding trust in a child can't be easy …
Absolutely understand. The consequences of this can have a knock-on effect far beyond feeling poorly for a week – I do get that. It's destabilising for coeliacs to have this problem happen. Food is something easy to take for granted, then suddenly .. bang – it may not be as 'safe' as you previously assumed. It's a problem, though, that can only ever be minimised, but never removed entirely…
Partly because I've been working in this business for quite a long time, I wasn't surprised about this, though hadn't fully appreciated the extent of this particular scenario. This is something which happens across the food industry as a whole – the big cereal, biscuit, tinned staples etc manufacturers make supermarket products regularly.
Yes I suppose the word 'guarantee' means different things to different people. A better word may be 'assurance' which is more a marketing term then a consumer safety term. All of which could mean the CUK crossed grain symbol is more of a marketing term then a kite mark. Whatever it is this mishap really shows the danger of having these schemes. They can be seen to be entirely meaningless and misleading.
But is a kite mark any 'guarantee' either – or just a quality certification? I don't think any of these symbols claim to 'guarantee' anything – but people understandably infer that they do. And, of course, those behind may not want to state the obvious, not least because it's too wordy – "nothing is absolutely 100% guaranteed, but we think our standard is the closest you can get". I come back again to the Kinnerton nut-free 'promise' – which I admire for transparency, truth and sense: http://www.kinnerton.com/AllergenInfo/NutSafetyPromise.aspx