Walkers Crisps: goodbye ‘suitable for coeliacs’, hello ‘made in a factory…’

Looking for a list of gluten-free crisps? Then click here. This list was last updated in April 2016. 

If you're interested in the story of how Walkers Crisps went from being coeliac friendly to coeliac unfriendly back in 2012, continue reading .... 

So, Walkers Crisps. I’ve been meaning to write about them for months and the delay is partly due to my being busy with other stuff, and partly due to matters out of my control.

I think I first became aware of an issue when I saw this post on the Coeliac Kids website in the summer. This was a time when many food companies were busy getting ready for the new 20ppm labelling legislation, which came into force 1st January 2012. Walkers were no exception: they were removing the “suitable for coeliacs” message from their product labelling, and adding advisory statements on packs to the effect that the crisps were being made in a factory in which gluten-containing ingredients were present.

And people were frustrated about this. Among them was Debra Samuel, mother to a teenage lad with coeliac disease whose favourite crisps were now out of bounds. Debra started a Facebook campaign and petition to ask Walkers to reconsider. The FB campaign is still active, and the petition still seems to be live too.

In the Coeliac Kids post I linked to above you can see the full standard response Walkers were sending out to customers last year. You can also see my comment regarding the following line in that response:
“The change to legislation means that from 2012, food manufacturers will no longer be able to use a 'suitable for Coeliacs' claim, as this statement is being phased out.”
As I suspected at the time, and am certain of now, this statement is not and never was being phased out. The new legislation allows it to be used to accompany a gluten-free claim on a product meeting the sub-20ppm criterion. It’s a supporting statement, if you like.

In November, I emailed Walkers as a gluten-free customer, and was sent the same standard response, with the same erroneous line claiming the ‘suitable for coeliacs’ statement was being withdrawn.

At around this time, Debra told me of a meeting between Coeliac UK and PepsiCo (Walkers’ parent company). In a message she sent out to supporters of her campaign, she wrote:
“…their processing procedures make it difficult to commit to making certain flavours of the crisps gluten-free. It seems that they spray the flavourings on to the potato crisps and they say that it is difficult to clean the sprays between different flavourings. They are looking into ways that this can be done and they do seem to be willing to try and make the process gluten-free…”
So what appears to have happened is that Walkers could meet the pre-2012 legislation criterion for gluten-free of sub-200ppm levels for some of their crisps, but would no longer be able to guarantee the stricter sub-20ppm from 2012. I’m not quite sure how they came to decide this. Did they send various batches off for testing and the results were well above 20ppm?

I tried to find this out, among other things. I contacted Walkers’ publicist on the 28th November to request an interview with a relevant spokesperson. I wanted to ask them about this stuff, but also to ask why Walkers were telling people the ‘suitable for coeliacs’ statement was being phased out.

After chasing, I heard back on the 7th December. I was reassured that my query had been passed on, and that it was being dealt with. I phoned the publicist just before Christmas to follow up again, and got the same reassurance. Walkers had my number and would call me.

I’ve not received a call. I got bored of waiting and here I am.

Where are we now?

The fuss seems to have died down. I spy occasional queries or comments on chat forums – many from coeliacs saying they react to Walkers and advising others to strictly avoid them – and I see the odd blog post too, most recently this one by Debra Doherty of the Awkward Eater blog, which states that manufacturing methods at Walkers’ factories haven’t changed, meaning trace gluten levels in the crisps are unlikely to be any different to pre-2012 levels. She says:
“The new law, in an effort to clarify allergen labelling has only confused thousands of gluten-freers… However, if you have previously eaten Walkers crisps (at least the ones previously labelled as gluten free) and have been fine afterwards, then continue to do so.”

I’d take issue with this. Regarding the second remark, damage caused by gluten can be silent, so you may be unaware of it. Feeling fine after eating is no guarantee that you actually are fine, sadly. And as far as the previous comment goes, the new legislation’s aim wasn’t to ‘clarify allergen labelling’, but instead to reflect the stricter gluten-free standards Codex recommended in order to protect the health of those with coeliac disease throughout Europe.

Of Walkers Debra reports:
“They regret that the new law has caused so much confusion.”

Hm. I can’t help feeling that Walkers are trying to distance themselves slightly from the responsibility for that confusion and pin it instead on the supposedly difficult law. This isn’t wholly dissimilar to the way their ‘suitable for coeliacs’ ‘being phased out’ statement appears to give the impression, at least to me, of helplessness and blamelessness in the face of Europe-sent legislation.

This all feels disingenuous: the law doesn’t compel anyone to remove gluten-free or ‘suitable for coeliacs’ claims – it just places stricter demands on companies before they can carry on doing so. And is the law so confusing anyway? Arguably – not really. Here you go:

Under 20ppm = gluten free / suitable for coeliacs.
20ppm-100ppm = very low gluten / suitable for most coeliacs.

That’s pretty much it.

Now, granted, allergy labelling as a whole can be confusing, as my blog last month illustrated, but the sometimes difficult rules governing stuff like allergens and allergen boxes and the exemptions of certain gluten grain-derived ingredients (glucose syrup etc) have been in place for years – and have little to do with the legislation under examination here.

The Walkers case does not have many complicating elements – aside perhaps the ‘made in a factory’ warning. It’s a straightforward case of a product no longer being able to meet a particular standard, and having to remove a statement claiming that standard.

So would it be harsh of me to suggest Walkers didn’t communicate these changes effectively to consumers? The law was passed in 2009, it’s worth recalling, so there has been a three-year transition period during which all this could have been thought about, discussed, planned and implemented in the best way. Why didn’t they just tell people they could no longer meet the levels considered safe, and that’s why they had to remove the ‘suitable for coeliacs’ – rather than allow consumers to infer that the law was compelling them to?

So who suffers?
There are arguably lots of victims here: coeliacs who have fewer choices (especially kids), Coeliac UK at having to field what I imagine were hundreds of queries from confused coeliacs and, yes, Walkers at having to answer possibly many more queries, as well as complaints, all of which are a drain to staff resources. It’s only fair to point out that Walkers are under no obligation to provide for coeliacs, although from what I learned from Debra (Samuel) and CUK, they seem at least open to looking into the possibility and willing to engage. Surely a positive sign.

So what next? Matt of the Hungry Boyfriend blog posted a comment about Walkers on this yesnobananas blog post recently. He said:
“Part of me … thinks I should vote with my feet and not buy these products out of principle.”

0.2% of the population are diagnosed coeliacs. I wonder whether there are enough feet to make a difference?

Edited on 23rd February 2012 to add:
Have just received confirmation of two things:
1/ That Coeliac UK are still in talks with Walkers, are 'hopeful' that changes will be made, and will keep people informed 'as soon as we have any info we can share'.
2/ That Walkers are still, as of today, sending out the standard customer service message above, including the mistaken statement that 'suitable for coeliacs' is being phased out. 

Gluten-Free Crisps
If you're looking for gluten free crisps or chips, try the following (though always check labels as ingredients and policy occasionally change). Most are available via major supermarkets, but you can often get good bulk deals via Amazon dealers.

Burts Potato Chips
All flavours of Burts own branded chips are gluten-free.
Note that their Guinness, Levi Roots and Lentil Waves products are NOT gluten-free.
For more, see the Burts Chips website, or find via Amazon, or many major supermarkets.

Pom Bear 
Bear-shaped snacks in several flavours - plain, cheese, cheese & onion and salt & vinegar. Loved by kids but liked by adults too!
See the Pom Bear website, or find via Amazon UK or Amazon US.

All of these rice-based products are confirmed gluten-free.
To learn more, see their website. Some products available via Amazon.

Seabrook Crisps
"Our full range of crinkle cut, straight cut and lattice crisps are gluten free"
A large selection of mixed flavours and boxes are available via Amazon UK and many major supermarkets.

Ten Acre
Their crisps and popcorn range are gluten free.
Click to their site for more information. Packs of 18 deals on Amazon UK too.

Veronica's Snacks
Irish brand of snacks, confirmed gluten-free.
To learn more, see their website. Some products available via Amazon UK.

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