My life in….Free From

 

 

It’s all Michelle Berriedale-Johnson’s fault. Michelle was running a magazine called Food Matters (now online). It was the mid-1990s and the embryonic Free From market was just beginning to show signs of life. I was interested, as we were already trying to cut down on wheat and cow-dairy products at home, a fairly Herculean task 20 years ago.

Michelle generated copy for the magazine through regular dinner parties around her capacious dining room table in Belsize Park. The meals were a combination of Free From recipes she was piloting for the magazine and product tests of those few foods and drinks that were being launched into what was then a very tiny market. As the magazine evolved, these tasting sessions gradually morphed into the Free From Food Awards, which I continue to judge to this day.

In 2009 I was recommended to Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne as a (possibly the) food technologist conversant with Free From. Lucinda’s son Robin could not eat gluten and Lucinda wanted him to be able to have soldiers with his boiled egg like everybody else. However, at that point all the gluten-free bread in the UK was heavy and brick-like. Lucinda, who was a trained chef, decided to develop the world’s first enjoyable gluten-free loaf. Over three years, one broken oven and “thousands” of loaves she managed it, and set up a company called Genius to market her bread. I was delighted to help Lucinda with her initial factory trials. In 2009 Genius Gluten-Free Bread hit the shelves of 700 branches of Tesco.

 

The launch of Genius was a key factor in moving the Free From sector into the mainstream. Having a legal definition of gluten free in 2012 also helped, as did the rapid rise of non-dairy milks. Suddenly Free From was the fastest growing sector in grocery. However, such growth was not without incident. In 2015 I commiserated with Lucinda after Genius had to initiate an extensive recall of its products from supermarket shelves after gluten somehow got into several batches of product. I knew from the FSA product-withdrawal website that many other Free From manufacturers were having similar incidents, culminating in expensive and inconvenient product withdrawals. Surely, Lucinda mused, if all the major gluten-free companies got together they could find a way of producing safer products?

 

That conversation was the start of the Gluten Free Industry Association (GFIA), eventually founded in January 2016 with me as Chair. The initial members of the GFIA were Bells of Lazonby, BFree Foods, Delicious Alchemy, Dr Schar, Genius Foods, Mrs Crimbles, Nairns Oatcakes, Northumbrian Fine Foods, and Warburtons. A fortuitous meeting at a Downing Street reception between Paddy Cronin of Nairns and Ian Wright, the Director General of the Food and Drink Federation, resulted in the FDF agreeing to host our group.

 

We decided to run the GFIA as a closed group for our first year but going into 2018 we have expanded our membership to include Morning Foods, Cerealto and The Gluten Free Kitchen. We are making good progress with our first two workstreams on sourcing gluten-free ingredients and testing for gluten free. Our aim remains to promote best practice in the gluten-free sector, ultimately delivering safer products to consumers.