The case for ‘no gluten containing ingredients’

Why is the phrase ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ so important to caterers?

To save any confusion, and before you read on, please bear in mind this blog is referring to plated food served in, or by, catering establishments and does not apply to shop bought prepacked foods that are tested, certified, packaged and labelled accordingly at the point of manufacture.

So, let us focus our minds on food served loose on a plate in restaurants, pubs, hotels, cafés, at weddings & other events, at buffets, from takeaways – wrapped in food safe paper or nestled in a serviette, etc. There are logistical and commercial reasons why it’s not viable to use the term ‘gluten free’ in these scenarios (please see the paragraph “What are the cost implications of using the ‘gluten free’ or ‘very low gluten’ statements?” later on).

So, what can you use instead? You can adopt the phrase ‘no gluten containing ingredients’, which accurately describes food offerings where gluten has not been intentionally added to a dish that you serve. Dishes that fall under the umbrella of no gluten containing ingredients are made using inherently gluten free, or naturally gluten free raw ingredients and/or prepacked ingredients that are labelled ‘gluten free’ by a manufacturer/food service supplier.

What do restaurants, pubs, hotels, cafés and events caterers have to do to use the ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ statement?

Please note that the group of letters N.G.C.I. is nothing more than an acronym for the phrase ‘no gluten containing ingredients’. The ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ statement can be used on menus, blackboards or verbally given as a complete sentence in its own right, without an accompanying symbol, and presents a practical alternative to having to make the ‘gluten free’ claim on your menu. To usefully deploy the statement, you will need to present a separate menu for your coeliac diners, i.e. you cannot mix and match your offerings (for further details please read on).

It’s critical that a business trains all staff who interact with either food and/or diners in how to effectively manage food allergens in the workplace. The training process should focus on best practice procedures to ensure the risk of cross contamination is kept to an absolute minimum. These procedures can then be documented in an establishment’s Quality Control Manual and/or HACCP Plan. Having a Process Management System in place will enable a business to demonstrate due diligence in the eyes of the law. The business can seek accreditation and accompanying certification, if they wish to do so, which will act as a beacon to passing trade and illustrates how serious they are about food allergen management, but it’s not mandatory. It’s important to note that there are several training companies, including ourselves, who can offer assistance and guidance on implementing effective process management in the workplace. Those same businesses can also help with accreditation and certification for the use of the statement ‘no gluten containing ingredients’. Training, accreditation and certification needn’t cost the earth. Once again, please note that you do not have to be accredited in order to use the ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ statement.

How should restaurants, pubs, hotels, cafés and events caterers use the ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ statement?

Further to a conversation with the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) earlier this week, they said: “for non-prepacked foods, ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ (NGCI) cannot be attributed to a single dish e.g. Cottage pie (NGCI). However, if you have a menu with sections listing starters, main courses and desserts, we consider a section on no gluten containing ingredients choices permissible. We also consider it acceptable to use no gluten containing ingredients in menu titles provided that all the items do not use gluten containing ingredients, such as “No gluten containing ingredients menu” or statements such as “All dishes on this menu do not use gluten containing ingredients”.

What does this mean in practical terms for restaurants, pubs, hotels, cafés, events caterers, etc.?

Put simply, if you have best practice procedures in place you can present your coeliac diners with a completely separate menu that says: “The following menu has been compiled using no gluten containing ingredients” (see example menu below). You could also present the same menu on a blackboard using the same statement: the following blackboard items have been compiled using no gluten containing ingredients; or if your servers have particularly good memories they can present the list of dishes verbally and once again say the dishes have been prepared using no gluten containing ingredients.

No gluten containing ingredients (NGCI) sample menu in respect of the allergen laws July 2016
No gluten containing ingredients (NGCI) sample menu

How not to use the ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ statement

You cannot identify a specific dish such as ‘beef curry’ with the statement no gluten containing ingredients on a menu which lists other dishes that do contain allergens such as gluten. You also cannot (and this has always been the case in food-serving establishments) call something on your menu ‘gluten free’ – unless you can substantiate the ‘gluten free’ claim (see below).

What are the cost implications of using the ‘gluten free’ or ‘very low gluten’ statements?

If you want to use the phrase ‘gluten free’ or ‘very low gluten’ to describe a meal that is being served in an eatery where there is a mixed food offering, i.e. both gluten free options and non-gluten free options… can only make this claim if each and every dish is tested for number of parts per million gluten. The caveat to this is if you place a prepacked meal in front of the diner still fully sealed. The diner then breaks the seal on the packaging to reveal the dish. This would mean the manufacturer makes a gluten free meal, labels it gluten free, supplies it to the establishment possibly via a food service company; the establishment then puts the packaged food item in the microwave or oven and hits start and waits for the ‘ping’; and finally the diner is served their fully packaged meal and breaks the seal on the pack prior to eating – I have experienced just such a scenario in Disneyland, Paris.

Let’s assume the business cares about presentation and actually wants to serve the meal (not fully packaged and sealed), but on a plate and they want to use one of the following phrases: ‘gluten free’ or ‘very low gluten’ on their menu, or on their blackboard or they instruct their staff to verbally inform the diner. To do this, they will have to be able to prove at the point of serving that it contains less than 20 parts per million gluten; or less than 100 ‘parts per million gluten’ respectively. This is totally impractical – the only safe way to test a plated meal is to liquidise all the items on the plate prior to analysis, and that’s assuming they have the correct bit of kit to test for levels of gluten to hand, (I don’t mean just a probe) and trained personnel to interpret the results. Also this is a very costly exercise in itself. How many catering establishments can afford to test each and every ‘gluten free’ or ‘very low gluten’ dish before they serve it? Then you are left in a situation where the liquidised mush needs to be turned back into real food for the diner! You can’t do this of course, so the diner isn’t served a real meal at all, but something that looks more like a brown coloured protein drink…….don’t forget the straw.

If the ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ statement disappeared altogether, would it limit venue choices for coeliac diners?

The phrase is absolutely critical to allow coeliac diners to make informed decisions when dining out safely. It is the only practical solution for establishments where gluten free meals are prepared, cooked and served alongside foods that contain gluten. Just imagine for a moment, you’re inside a ‘real’ working kitchen where ordinary flours are used pretty much all the time. Each time flour puts in an appearance the rest of the kitchen is immediately contaminated (to a greater or lesser extent). The slightest movement of air generated by a fan, kitchen staff or the breeze will assist fine particles of flour in spreading to every corner of the kitchen. Some of the finer particles can remain suspended in the atmosphere for hours whilst larger particles will land willy-nilly on any and all surfaces, including food that is being prepared, cooked or is plated and destined for a coeliac diner.

Now try to imagine a kitchen where there is a completely dedicated gluten free area, i.e. sectioned off where food is prepared, cooked and served in isolation – a ‘gluten free bubble’. These places do exist, but they are few and far between.

I support the use of the ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ statement wholeheartedly

I strongly advocate the responsible use of the phrase ‘no gluten containing ingredients’. It’s a practical solution that presents an honest approach to how an establishment handles gluten in the workplace. Indeed, there’s no harm in asking the establishment to show you what procedures they have in place; or ask them to explain what measures they take to control the risk of cross contamination. I am more likely to trust an establishment that uses the phrase ‘no gluten-containing ingredients’ because they have obviously given careful thought and consideration to how best they can bring food safely to a coeliac diner.

Right now the message is not clear since so many establishments adopt the ‘gluten free’ statement, but cannot substantiate it. More emphasis should be given to implementing best practice procedures and educating caterers to make these procedures readily available to diners, so people like me can clearly see what they are doing to manage allergens. I hate being made ill when I eat out, but it happens so frequently, especially at establishments making the ‘gluten free’ claim. Stricter enforcement is required; coupled with better education for both caterers and those individuals that are charged with policing it on the ground.

‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ a wonderful line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian….and it turns out we have a lot to thank the Romans for. The perfect parallel today is ‘what have the EU ever done for us?’ Actually, they have given us some really concrete legislation surrounding the management of food allergens, which I hope remains intact. So, if the legislation is ‘solid’, why do we appear to be going backwards in respect of the eating out experience? Someone is misinterpreting what is achievable in a ‘real’ working kitchen where gluten is concerned and it’s impacting the health and enjoyment of coeliacs up and down the land. Why can’t we just accept that it’s nigh on impossible to claim ‘gluten free’ or ‘very low gluten’ in restaurants, pubs, hotels, cafés and at catering events where foods that are loaded with allergens are also being served? Why can’t we just put our hands up and accept the fact that the ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ statement provides a workable solution and a sensible way forward?

I have lost count of the number of times I have been made ill by certain establishments claiming certain dishes are ‘gluten free’. I believe it’s time to stop using the ‘gluten free’ statement unless the establishment only serves gluten free options and there is no gluten on their premises whatsoever. I want to be able to make informed decisions on my food choices. I don’t agree with establishments jumping on the ‘gluten free’ bandwagon or organisations encouraging establishments to make the claim when the establishment is so obviously not set-up to do so safely. Slapping ‘gluten free’ labels over menus by people who really don’t understand the implications of making such a claim is wrong on every level. I urge you to adopt best practice procedures and use the statement ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ on separate menus – it’s achievable, honest and it’s safe.

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