You can shop around for an affordable gluten-free sandwich – but being sure of what’s in it is not so easy

One way to express dismay at the price being asked for the goods and services we want is to shop elsewhere.  Another is to cough up, then grumble about being ripped off on social media.

Taking the second course of action may well attract the mainstream media and soon an aggrieved customer’s grouch has been turned into a newspaper headline.

An example can be found today at Stuff:  Coeliac sufferer says cafe $4 gluten free surcharge is profiteering.

The report beneath the headline says cafes are charging more to cover rising costs, including wages – but a woman charged $4 extra for gluten free bread says this is  profiteering.

A woman with coeliac disease who was charged $4 for gluten free bread at an Auckland cafe says the business is profiting off people’s illnesses and allergies.

Wellington woman Emma Ward said on Twitter on Sunday: “I am at a cafe in Auckland and the GF bread is $4 extra. $4! I understand it’s an extra cost but it is also super ableist.”

The 27-year-old said gluten-free bread was quite pricey, but the surcharge was usually $2.

“It’s frustrating when you can tell the bread is just a slice of Vogels from the supermarket,” she said.

The Stuff report. alas, then demonstrates a feeble grasp of economic concepts such as “free enterprise” and “competition”: 

As a coeliac she had little choice but to pay the cost, she said.

Really?

What about foregoing the too-costly GF foods and buying only the coffee – or shopping elsewhere?

Stuff surveyed the menus of a number of cafes across the country on what they charged for gluten free bread and milk alternatives.

It found the surcharge for gluten-free bread averaged between $1 and $2. Some cafes didn’t charge extra.

The cafe was approached for comment and did not respond but a defence was provided by Mark Collins, described as a hospitality adviser.

While $4 was “a bit steep”, he said, he also noted that meeting market needs could become quite demanding.

“The product that you’ve got to have on hand may not get used … The cafe has to carry that gluten-free bread and accordingly it has got a shelf life.”

Rising costs in the sector were making it harder for business owners.

“If you haven’t got enough momentum or business it’s hard to stay objective about what you should charge,” Collins said.

A more significant issue, we would have thought, was that customers can’t be sure of the consequences of eating the gluten-free foods which cafes claim to be providing.

Coeliac disease is an auto-immune disorder which causes a reaction to gluten, found in wheat, barley, rye and oats.

One in every 70 New Zealanders is estimated to have Coeliac disease, although many more are undiagnosed, according to Coeliac New Zealand.

The Stuff report says Ward gets severe symptoms from eating gluten within about 20 minutes,.

But many eateries advertise food as gluten-free (to meet the growing demand from health-food faddists) which is “not suitable for coeliacs”.

“I never even know if the kitchen is educated about food preparation and cross-contamination, so it’s always a gamble anyway,” she said.

Aimee Shaw, a business reporter focusing on retail and small business for the New Zealand Herald, drew attention to this aspect of the GF food business in a report in January last year.  

Frequent cafe visitor Andrea Jutson says she is turned away from cafes and food outlets on a weekly basis when she is told the gluten-free items for sale are not suitable for those with Coeliac disease.

Jutson says she is not alone, and often talks to friends and colleagues who also have gone through the same experience.

“It’s really demoralising because you go in with the expectation the food advertised gluten-free will be suitable for you but unfortunately you get people being extremely hesitant to serve you or pretty much warning you off eating their food,” Jutson said.

“If food manufacturers are held to a certain standard and can’t label their food gluten-free unless they meet those standards then why is hospitality any different?”

Jutson said it is misleading for a label to describe food as gluten-free if there is any  possibility it may contain gluten.

She said cafe owners are not clued up on the difference between an intolerance and the auto-immune disease.

“The ones who pay lip service to it without actually taking the trouble to make sure their food is safe, that is poor management.”

The serious health implications were spelled out in a Stuff report in October 2016:

After eating a “gluten free” sandwich at an Orewa cafe recently, coeliac sufferer Valerie Walker of Tindalls Beach ended up having a serious reaction. 

The sandwich had been served with fries, salad and sauce. Only the bread was gluten free, she found out later, with nothing cooked or prepared separately. Unfortunately this isn’t a one off, she says.

“It’s really false advertising for cafe’s to advertise gluten free options that coeliac suffers then have a reaction to,” says Kathy Torkington of Stanmore Bay.

In April last year a Stuff report referenced a German study of restaurant staff, published in Plos One at that time, which revealed widespread ignorance of food allergies among food service workers.

Of the 295 staff surveyed by researchers at the University of Dusseldorf, 35 per cent thought they could treat a customer having an allergic reaction by serving them cold water to “dilute the allergen”, while one in five believed removing an allergen from a finished meal could be all that was necessary to provide a safe meal for a customer with an allergy.

Over 41 per cent said they believed some customers fabricated allergies.

This report noted that the owner and manager of a UK restaurant in 2018 had been found guilty of manslaughter following the death of a 15-year-old girl who ate a takeaway meal their staff had prepared.

The meal, it was later revealed, contained peanut protein. Her order form had indicated she was allergic to prawns and nuts.

In 2017, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) and Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia launched a free online education course for food service workers.

In this country, Coeliac New Zealand provides training in the preparation of gluten-free food.

Its training course “is designed to educate catering professionals working in the private, health and education sectors” and “is relevant for both kitchen and front of house catering staff that are preparing or serving meals for customers requiring gluten free options”.

A bit of googling led Point of Order to an array of sites which can steer the public to gluten-free food providers –

GF Friendly Cafes and Restaurants | Gluten Free Grocer

Where To Find: Auckland’s Best Gluten-Free & Allergy …

THE 30 BEST Gluten Free Restaurants in Auckland, New …

Where To Eat In Auckland If You’re Gluten Free | Urban List NZ

The 10 Best Gluten Free Restaurants in Auckland Central …

The 10 Best Gluten Free Restaurants in Wellington – TripAdvisor

Gluten Free Cafes and Restaurants in New Zealand

This affirms that coeliacs can shop around to find a café which serves the food they seek without doing too much mischief to their finances.

But they may find out the hard way whether the “gluten-free food” they are served will  do their health a mischief.

It’s this aspect of  Emma Ward’s experience – and the obvious need for honest food labelling – that Point of Order would have emphasised.

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