“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
It’s an open secret that most supermarkets and brands do not develop and manufacture their own foods (gluten free or otherwise), but subcontract manufacturing or purchase them from other companies. Or at least it is now, following the recent product recalls from Genius Foods, Livwell, and the biggest UK supermarkets; all of which originated from a single manufacturing facility.
What surprised me about this whole affair was how few people had realised most retailers don’t produce all of their own products! When I decided to satisfy my curiosity about this, it became very clear why. It is surprisingly difficult for a layperson to find out who the ‘man behind the curtain’ is! Here’s a little insight to a few of the bigger companies I found behind the scenes of our gluten free brands:
United Central Bakeries in Scotland are the acquisition made in early 2013 by Genius, along with the brand Livwell. Formerly part of Finsbury Foods, it seems the reach of this conglomerate is far and wide in the sector – as shown by the aforementioned recalls in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons & Waitrose. A few people noticed when Genius suddenly launched crumpets in suspiciously similar packaging to the Livwell product; but now it’s clear. With an annual turnover of £42m a year in 2013, they probably represent around 20% of the UK gluten free market.
Genius aren’t just making foods for other people, but other people make things outside of their core business for them too. Chapel Foods found themselves the centre of an earlier gluten free controversy after some of their gluten-filled fillings made their way into Genius’ gluten free pastry products.
On the slightly smaller side, family owned Welsh company, UltraPharm, don’t make pharmaceuticals at all, but if you look at their product galleries, most of the baked goods in Marks & Spencers Made Without Wheat range. Dairy free consumers are all too aware that their Made Without Dairy chocolate originates from Kinnerton (much to the frustration of nut-allergics it has a nut warning on which doesn’t appear on the branded alternative) And the M&S own brand gluten free beers? Ahem.
You might know Glebe Farm for providing their own brand baking mixes sold in farm shops, but they are also the only UK grower and processor of gluten free oats, as such form the basis of many gluten free oat products in the UK. What if there’s a problem with the supply? They’re investing in a new multi-million pound facility – clear evidence of the massive growth in use of gluten free oats. (They also made cider ;)). Whilst we’re on the subject of oats – I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that inside those bright branded boxes of gluten free instant porridge often lies the same product…
For a final little known fact: many rave about the gluten free cakes at London chain, Leon. Not their work: check out Honeybuns to see some of their other similar products! I add this in because I don’t want you to see this as some big art of deception with giant evil corporations pulling our puppet strings – it’s often small, family owned industries managing to expand into viable businesses by contracting with larger chains. I see nothing wrong with retailers outsourcing this kind of production – it makes sense (in terms of finances, safety and product quality) to rely on a specialist.
The decision about stocking branded or unbranded goods taken by supermarkets is a strategic one, aimed at balancing the viability of a range, trust, shelf impact, reputation etc. The challenge has come because many consumers feel their trust has been betrayed by the smoke, mirrors and branding. It is concerning how far removed we are from understanding who we are trusting to provide our allergen-free eats, and if anything comes out of the recent product recalls, let’s hope it’s a little more transparency about the supply chain.
This piece was the result of a lot of hasty googling and based on publicly available information. If you know of any more of the ‘big players’ behind the scenes in the free from industry, do let me know!