I recently had the opportunity to visit the home of Newburn Bakehouse – the gluten free range from Warburtons, and jumped at the chance. Along with 10 other bloggers and coeliac group coordinators, I met and quizzed the MD for Free From, Chris Hook, as well as having a tour of the dedicated gluten free factory, test kitchens, and tried some new products that will launch later in the year.
We learnt lots about ingredients, methods, Warburtons’ particular dedication to the market the and the future of gluten free prescribing; but with the ongoing horse meat scandal bubbling in the press, what played on my mind constantly throughout the day is how much we consumers and the food industry in general could learn from this particular example of food production.
You can’t take short-cuts with gluten free food
You only need to follow one of the major gluten free manufacturers on Facebook to see one of the biggest whinges of the gluten free: “But why is your bread so expensive?” follows every status update from an audience of consumers who feel entitled an equivalent to the 50p value wheat loaf or 90p gluten-containing lasagne. Well the short answer is you can’t take shortcuts when you make free from food. If some gluten gets in, you have ill people, not just upset people; so the free from industry is a model for what we should really have in the rest of the food industry – a reasonable price for a quality product which results from careful production.
Provenance of ingredients and rigour in the process
We’re now becoming all too aware that something in the process has to give for us to enjoy those supermarket deals – either the quality of the product, the rigour of the controls in producing it, or perhaps the welfare of the providers of the raw ingredients – be they British dairy farmers with squeezed margins or exploited growers in developing economies. When you’re catering for an allergic or intolerant audience those things can’t give. You have to be sure of the provenance of your ingredients – as Warburtons are, creating their own mixes from raw materials sourced globally; and rigorous with your quality controls. Even though I have worked in catering, I was impressed by he strictness in everything from the large investment in a dedicated facility for gluten-free products to the traceability through the process from the ‘air lock’ where ingredients are delivered right up until the dedicated palettes of Newburn Bakehouse products heading for the supermarket with their giant “put me in free from” signs. You can be sure that this level of control doesn’t come cheap.
Growing the market responsibly
Of course market size and demand play a large role in the cost of gluten free products. I was surprised to learn that the facility only operates 7 x 12 hour shifts a week with 20 bakers, compared to the main Warburtons factory with 5000 workers and 24 hour production – there are lots of efficiencies that come with that kind of volume which the smaller gluten free market doesn’t yet benefit from, although having a larger parent company means that Newburn Bakehouse can benefit from facilities like the large national delivery network of it’s big brother that its rivals don’t have. Hopefully with new product innovations and a continued responsible marketing strategy – focusing on the needs of the coeliac market, but approaching the larger lifestyle market with a well-informed educational approach – the market will grow and we can benefit from lower, but sustainable prices and a larger range to chose from.
Transparency and collaboration
What has outraged us most about the horse meat saga is not so much that it was horse, but that we didn’t know it was. Maybe we’ve turned a blind eye, and not asked the questions we should have, but having transparency and accountability in the process should be the key feature of the new normal for the food industry. The team at Warburtons were startlingly open with us compared to many large manufacturers- telling us about their product failures, allowing us to ask any questions, take pictures and even to see commercially sensitive new product development. This collaborative, open operation is what I would like to see from all of our large national food producers; not just with customers, but with other providers that can help us lead better, healthier lives – for example food service organisations.
The new products we were allowed to try obviously result directly from listening to customers – they address many of the comments I see online. Hence their new seeded loaf (launching in March) is the first I’ve seen with a proper sized slice. Finally a decent sandwich in my lunchbox! The incredibly popular muffins will also soon come in new flavours including a Fruity Morning Muffin. Chris’ team seems to be in pursuit of quality products that live up to the Warburtons brand and I took the opportunity to pass on the calls I heard for crumpets and other savoury products. We were assured they would be looked into by the development team – exciting prospects! I think it’s reasonable for us to expect quality. As Sam from The Happy Coeliac put it: “products don’t vanish because there’s no demand, they vanish because they aren’t good enough”. Fair point.
A winning performance?
We didn’t talk about the commercial performance of the Newburn Bakehouse range, but the clearly large investment and ongoing focus on new products suggests a growing business and a long-term commitment to the range. Hopefully this, teamed with a collaborative relationship with their customers and stakeholders in the healthcare system will result in a commercial success that benefits all of us.
For more lovely pictures and account of how the day unfolded, visit The Happy Coeliac.
A few more pictures from the day:
Some facts about Newburn Bakehouse:
- The bakery uses approx 2 tonnes of starch per day
- It takes 4 hours to make a Newburn Bakehouse loaf, including proving in the giant proving room (which is like an amazing sauna which smells of teacake)
- The bakery operates 7 days per week with 12 hour shifts
- All ingredients and mixes are weighed by hand to Warburtons’ own recipes
- The new crusty baguette took 9 months to develop – the same as making a baby! (Although “not as fun” said new product development manager, Dave)