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.