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Genius or not so clever? Gluten free recall raises issues

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Leading free-from manufacturer Genius recently recalled over 20 of its lines from supermarkets across the country and while the reputational damage suffered by Genius will no doubt be substantial, there is a question as to whether it is warranted.

According to Genius the products affected contained low levels of gluten considered to be of minimal risk to people who suffer gluten intolerance and the recall was initiated after the company identified the contamination through its own internal testing procedures.

In short the company has acted in good faith, it has tested its own products and, even though many were below the threshold required for a product to be defined as gluten-free, worked collaboratively with retailers to issue a recall in the interest of consumers. Yet it has still faced criticism from consumers.

This issue is one that will become more widespread in the free-from sector over coming years as it continues to grow.  

Over a five year period, 2009-2014, the industry more than doubled in value – up from £173.5m to £355.1m. The market is currently valued at £365m in the UK and £34m in ROI.

Gluten-free is one of the largest segments within the free-from category, and new figures from Kantar UK (February 2015) value this segment at £87m.

Challenges for free-from

As it stands there are few regulatory controls that govern the production of free-from foods specifically.

Currently, the main regulations for free-from food processors to be aware of are the Food Labelling (Declaration of Allergens) Regulations 2008 which require allergens to be listed.

European Commission also introduced compositional and labelling standards in January 2012. This set maximum levels of gluten for foods claiming to be either 'gluten-free' or 'very low gluten'. These are:

  • 'gluten-free': at 20 parts per million of gluten or less
  • 'very low gluten': at 100 parts per million of gluten or less – however, only foods with cereal ingredients that have been specially processed to remove the gluten may make a 'very low gluten' claim.

There is however a large amount of potentially problematic regulation that the free-from industry has to comply with that is additional to the sector specific requirements – for example, both the Food Safety Act and General Food Law Regulations make mention to categorised foods, but do not offer detailed guidance.

The challenge for free-from food processors is that the interpretation of these legislative requirements is not fixed and updated guidance from regulatory bodies as well as new judicial decisions are constantly moving the goal posts.

Clear and unequivocal legislative guidance is required for the free-from sector and soon, otherwise unnecessary product recalls will become commonplace, as will irreversible reputational damage. 

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