When chocolate manufacturer Kinnerton welcomed a wheelchair-bound boy into its factory to sample its latest product, there were plenty of happy faces to be seen.
In this case, the boy suffered from multiple allergies. The product he was able to enjoy for the first time was made from nut-free, dairy-free, gluten-free and egg-free chocolate. The manufacturer has had a nut-free production area for several years, but since 2003 it has also been producing cooking chocolate with these additional benefits. This year, it has added an Easter egg to the range.
In new product development terms, 'free from' foods have become a category in their own right in the UK, and offer major opportunities both for brands and own-label. Gluten- and wheat-free food specialist Nutrition Point quotes the figure of 43% for the proportion of the UK adult population which believes it has some sort of food allergy or intolerance. Allergy dietician Carina Venter agrees with this estimate, but says that when tests are carried out, the real figure is unlikely to be higher than 5%.
"These people constitute a huge market, even if they aren't properly diagnosed," Venter confirms. "There aren't enough allergy services available in the UK, so many people treat themselves."
At the same time, the free from choice available to consumers is in most cases very limited. For example, there are only three cake brands on the market which do not contain egg, says Venter. New products in this category can command a grateful -- and loyal -- consumer following. Those which combine a nut-free label with avoidance of other allergens are likely to be even more sought-after.
But as Kinnerton Group md Clive Beecham explains there is a catch: "With this sort of range, you put yourself on a pedestal. If you do fall, it's a long way down."
At the end of January, Sainsbury discovered what it is like to slip on this particular pedestal, when six types of biscuit in its Freefrom range were found to contain traces of gluten. The products were all labelled 'free from wheat and free from gluten'.
The retailer promptly issued a product recall, and launched an investigation into this serious lapse in quality control. Its own tests, rather than those of the unidentified supplier, detected the gluten. Sainsbury was invited to comment on the lessons learned, but declined.
For most mainstream products (depending on the contaminant) the use of terms such as 'trace' and 'low level' might be enough to reassure consumers. In this case, buying back consumer confidence is likely to be much more difficult.
It is true that for many sufferers from allergies and intolerances, trace amounts of the allergen do not produce an acute reaction. But, commenting on a common form of gluten allergy, Venter says: "While coeliac disease sufferers do not react with anaphylaxis, even small amounts of gluten can be risky for them, because there can be damage to the gut mucosa. It could be weeks before this damage is repaired. It is inexcusable for a product labelled as being gluten-free to contain even trace amounts of gluten." In some households, the coeliac sufferer cannot even use the same toaster used by other members of the family.
When dealing with wheat and milk, says Venter, there is a similar range of reaction. This spans the symptom-free wheat allergy or lactose-induced diarrhoea, and more serious reactions all the way to fatal anaphylaxis. Patients know the levels -- and brands -- that they can safely consume, but they rely on extremely accurate and clear labelling.
Nut allergy is one of those which can trigger anaphylaxis, and Kinnerton is very careful in its own on-pack information. Says Beecham: "We had a customer recently that wanted us to use the wording 'guaranteed nut-free' on a product. We've been at pains to point out that it's impossible to use the term 'guaranteed'." Typically, Kinnerton chocolate is labelled as being 'manufactured in a nut-free environment'.
Chris Hook, md of Nutrition Point, says: "The Sainsbury recall demonstrates the need for a strong due diligence programme, and the need for a high level of testing at all stages: raw materials and finished product. It also raises the issue of possible cross contamination if foods are made in a conventional area." His own company has just invested in an in-house laboratory at its Warrington site.
He adds: "Any supplier of free from foods should be able to substantiate the claims it is making on pack and demonstrate it is meeting the set guidelines." For example, the Codex Alimentarius sets a gluten level of 200ppm, while Nutrition Point says it is committed to the lower level used throughout Europe of only 20ppm. FM