LiberEat is thrilled to have Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne on our Board of Directors, offering her unique insights and experience to the team. Lucinda founded the trailblazing Free From brand Genius Foods and has a wealth of food safety experience, with over two decades in the industry. She’s also the Chair of the Board of Scotland Food & Drink, and we’re happy to have her join our mission to make food safer for everyone.
We recently interviewed her to discuss food safety in the industry, her thoughts on LiberEat, what she believes to be the biggest challenges for both consumers and businesses and her thoughts on where the industry is heading.
What can businesses do to help reduce the chance of potential allergen risks?
Each food business must ensure staff have proper allergen training and food safety management systems, from the ingredient procurement stage all the way through to the distribution of their finished products. The procurement team must ask the right questions and understand the importance of undertaking due diligence around potential ingredient suppliers before they enter into any contracts. This includes how ingredients are grown, stored, processed and tested to ensure they are Free From cross-contamination with allergens.
It is also critical to create a culture of care and excellence in food and drink businesses where the team is motivated and proud to follow food safety protocols to the letter. This includes tracking ingredients and product batches as they travel from storage through the production process and when they are dispatched.
Rigorous equipment cleaning regimes between batches to minimise the risk of cross-contamination are also vital for reducing the chance of allergen contamination.
Does that change at all for businesses making allergen-free/Free From products?
Food safety in food and drink production is a top priority. In Free From manufacturing, even more rigorous food safety steps have to be in place to ensure consumer safety.
Very often, Free From products are produced separately from products containing allergens. This means they are made in a segregated area with dedicated equipment, ingredients and production teams. If the facility isn’t large enough to accommodate a segregated Free From production area, line separation might be used instead.
Producing Free From products is very involved because you must do so much extra due diligence, checking, testing, and segregating ingredients and products from end to end of the production process. In order to do this effectively and efficiently, it is necessary to have a culture of care & excellence in place to uphold these standards. It takes a lot of rigour and structure within a company to achieve this.
What works, in terms of nurturing the team, to help them achieve this?
Getting the right team in place and developing a culture of excellence comes from the organisation’s top. It is vital that every member of the business, from the Board to every production worker, understands the importance of maintaining a culture of food safety excellence in Free From food manufacturing. It is essential to recruit outstanding leaders who fully embrace and clearly communicate these high standards and value every team member for the role they play in ensuring every pack of food leaving the factory is safe and delicious. This generates a sense of belonging, community, and a culture of care and pride throughout the team.
Consumer safety is at the core of every decision made by Free From manufacturing businesses. It is a privilege to produce food that makes such a difference in the lives of consumers who must avoid allergenic staple ingredients. Earning consumers’ trust by providing them with consistently high-quality, tasty, safe food is the foundation from which every Free From food business grows.
When food safety errors such as allergen cross-contamination occur, consumers can potentially become very ill or even die, and everyone in the team must be sharply aware of this possibility. In addition, due to the potential injury caused to consumers, consumers will lose trust in the food company and will understandably choose to purchase similar products from another brand.
The stakes are high – new businesses entering the Free From sector must make sure they are closely following allergen legislation and have rigorous food safety procedures in place.
What are the most significant consequences for businesses when something goes wrong?
The worst consequence is a consumer becoming ill or even dying as a result of eating a product contaminated with the allergen they have to avoid. This is obviously a devastating situation that the company will want to avoid at all costs. In the event of an allergen contamination, food manufacturers will recall their affected products from stockists which is costly and may also lead to stiff penalties, lawsuits and retail delisting. These outcomes may spell the end for a business, but if it survives, regaining consumer and customer trust can be very challenging. In short, the food safety teams have an incredibly important role to play in keeping both the consumers and the business safe.
What are the common areas in a business's process where allergens may go unnoticed?
There are several critical control points along the production process where allergen cross-contamination can occur. The first point is the failure to conduct a thorough due diligence process on prospective ingredient suppliers. The food safety team must visit potential ingredient suppliers at the beginning of the partnership and periodically after that to ensure the process and allergy testing regime are safe and meet the high standards of the Free From manufacturer. Suppliers proud to produce allergen-free ingredients that meet the lowest detectable levels are likely to be the most reliable partners.
Even with the most reliable Free From ingredients, allergen contamination can occur at the manufacturing site. To guard against this possibility, Free From producers will test ingredients as they arrive at the plant and store them separately in coded zones or containers. Free From products are often manufactured in a dedicated and segregated area. If Free From products are made in a shared space, they will be produced on dedicated lines or lines that have been deep cleaned and tested for allergen traces beforehand.
Production teams in Free From manufacturing facilities will be highly trained in allergen safety and wear dedicated uniforms that are cleaned and stored separately. The Free From team will work solely on Free From products during a production run to minimise the chance of contamination. Once the products are made and packed, they are stored separately from products containing allergens.
Free From products may contain one or a number of the 14 major allergens, and these must be clearly stated in bold on the pack. For example, gluten-free bread is gluten-free but often contains eggs.
Speaking of the supplier, what is the relationship with them usually like? Do you work closely and collaboratively, and at what stage do you feel like you have a degree of comfort and can trust them?
When you first start to work with an ingredients supplier, every batch of ingredients is tested on arrival. As the relationship and trust between supplier and manufacturer develops, manufacturers may choose to reduce testing to every few batches. While it is vital to develop close working relationships with suppliers, it is also important to engage with alternative suppliers, just in case something goes wrong and for continuity of supply.
Overall, what role do you think consumers play in driving demand for improved food safety and allergen declarations and products?
Consumers drive improvements in food safety by choosing the brands they believe engage with them most effectively, that take care to understand and respond to their needs and share information about their ingredients and processing methods. This openness and warmth creates consumer trust and loyalty to brands dedicated to improving the life of people with allergies and other dietary restrictions.
Consumers will share both negative and positive experiences concerning Free From products and brands with friends and family and online. This influences the products consumers choose to purchase and, ultimately, the success or decline of businesses that have failed to maintain consumer trust or provide consumers with the quality they seek. There have been some high-profile cases covered in the press where companies have failed to keep their consumers safe, and these tragic events motivate manufacturers of Free From products to continuously review the quality of their own food safety procedures. This has helped raise standards and highlights the importance of remaining ever vigilant for the possibility of cross-contamination and food fraud.
Consumer awareness of food allergies and intolerances has significantly increased over the last 20 years, driving demand for ever tastier and safer products and ultimately the growth of the Free From market.
As part of this increased awareness, we’ve seen many supermarkets increase their Free From and ‘allergy free’ range. What’s their approach regarding allergens and food products? Are they driving a lot of change?
As the demand for Free From products has grown over the past two decades, supermarkets have embraced the opportunity to drive the growth of the Free From sector overall and attract shoppers to their stores. By listing new groundbreaking, allergen-free products, they are enhancing the choice of Free From products for their current shoppers and attracting many new customers from other retailers into their stores. This is termed “increasing footfall” and is commercially beneficial for retailers, as new shoppers will tend to purchase additional products during their visit and likely return.
The supermarkets have certainly driven many of the Food Standards consumers expect. Supermarkets regularly audit their own label and branded suppliers to ensure manufacturers comply with their food safety and quality standards. These standards guide new businesses around the skills and processes they must implement as they scale and compete with more established brands in the market. If manufacturers fail to meet these standards, they may be penalised or delisted.
Many branded food businesses will improve their manufacturing efficiency by producing own-label products for supermarkets. Although an increased product range can create manufacturing complexity, working closely with the retailers helps maintain manufacturing standards and strengthens the relationship between the food business and the retailer, providing better opportunities for further branded product listings. The high food safety standards set by the major multiples to protect their customers have certainly played a significant role in driving the UK’s world-leading food safety practices.
What would your number one piece of advice be to new food suppliers when dealing with allergens?
It is important for the founding team of new Free From businesses to define which food allergens they will always omit from their product range and which allergens they will sometimes or always include in formulations. This sets the direction for developing food safety segregation and testing protocols accordingly.
It is worth knowing that every allergenic ingredient a food brand claims to be Free From will add cost and complexity to supply chain and production requirements due to the additional testing and segregation required. Finding ingredient suppliers who can guarantee Free From status for all the allergens a business initially sets out to avoid can also be challenging. These ingredients are likely to be more expensive. Spend time ensuring your input and processing costs are built into your selling price, or it will be challenging to invest in and grow your business. Avoid generating complexity and cost that prices yourself out of the market or creating manufacturing conditions that are unrealistic to achieve.
What do you think is driving people to invest in new food safety technology like LiberEat?
Libereat’s technology enables food businesses, particularly food safety teams, to track the accuracy and safety of their ingredient lists on packs, recipes, and menus 24/7, 365 days a year.
Libereat’s technology provides a continuous second protective shield for food safety due diligence, upgrading the food business’ culture of care and protection to both customers and the business itself. By catching ingredient errors such as unclaimed allergens, customers are protected from injury, which is devastating for all involved and leads to reputational damage, significant cost and possibly the end of the business.
Do you have to strike a balance as a business between cost-saving and maintaining high standards?
The food safety element of food production must always be appropriately resourced with trained staff and the necessary procedures to maintain safety and quality standards. If a food business is looking to cut costs, it will consider simplifying its product range and automating parts of the manufacturing process to increase efficiency and productivity. Innovation projects may also be cut as new products are costly to take to market.
Can you think of somebody in the industry that you’d consider the gold food safety standard?
Unilever, Nestle, and other enormous global food businesses have their own labs, resourced with their own highly-trained scientists, specialists and state-of-the-art testing equipment. Their infrastructure is so expansive it makes sense for them to set the standards and carry out their own testing procedures.
Additionally, I can think of many much smaller purpose-led businesses that care deeply about ensuring that their consumers always remain safe and have rigorous processes. That’s why they’re growing and doing well. They engage closely with their customers. Due to the loyalty that develops between the business and consumers, the care and pride in the quality and safety of their products remain their top priority no matter the business challenges they are contending with. The gold standard applies to small, highly conscientious businesses up to a massive global business that puts their consumers’ needs and safety first.
When working at Genius Foods, what were your regular interactions with regulatory bodies like the FSA and FSS? What does that relationship look like?
The procurement and operations team, quality assurance team, food safety team, and production team work very closely, together with the FSA and retail customers. This involves a constant stream of visits and audits.
Meanwhile, the team are continuously monitoring and responding to every stage of the food safety and quality procedures, such as testing ingredients and finished products, maintaining and cleaning equipment and every area of the manufacturing facility. It’s a 24/7 job. It never stops as Genius produces bread and other bakery products for its consumers every day and around the clock. Every pack leaving the bakery must meet the high standards of safety and quality that both the business and consumer expect.
Let’s talk a little bit about LiberEat, since we're so delighted to have you as a non-exec board member. What were your initial impressions of the technology?
LiberEat technology is a brilliant idea because it provides a shield, a second layer of protection that a business can put in place to ensure that they have crossed all the T’s and dotted all the i’s during ingredient listing checks. The technology enhances businesses’ confidence that every product sold in the market is completely safe for their customers and consumers. Why would you not put that extra protection in place? Quite often, ingredient decks are checked manually. It’s a painstaking, detailed process and takes a lot of focus. Why wouldn’t food producers utilise a tool to help them do that job even better?
Is it clear the mission that LiberEat is on?
I’d say what we’re doing is perfectly obvious. We are making it much easier for manufacturers and food suppliers to make that extra check and ensure every product they are releasing into the market is safe. It’s essential to spell out all the benefits of why using LiberEat technology is the way to go. It certainly provides food businesses with peace of mind that they are doing everything they can to protect their customers and businesses from food safety events.
What’s the biggest challenge for LiberEat?
I suppose it’s securing time with the decision makers in large businesses to explain how Libereat’s allergen error detection software can upgrade their food safety procedures. It makes complete sense to test Libereat’s technology after an initial meeting – the cost-effectiveness of speed-checking ingredient lists 24/7 365, and the extra layer of due diligence is a no-brainer!
What are you excited about, being on the board at LiberEat, and how can you help us?
I bring Free From food industry knowledge to the table as I have built a gluten and dairy-free business where consumer safety and satisfaction sit at the core of every decision. I’m very passionate about this subject, I have personal experience with allergies as my mother and two of my children have severe food allergies. I created Genius bread, so my gluten-intolerant son could enjoy a fresh sandwich in his lunch box, like his friends.
I’m an entrepreneur, and I’m interested in sustainable growth, and I want to support LiberEat’s mission to improve the food safety standards for people with food allergies and intolerances. It’s a subject dear to my heart, and LiberEat’s purpose is enormously attractive to me. In a world where food fraud is on the increase due to inflation, increased populations and climate change etc., I can see that there is a massive opportunity for LiberEat to raise the bar for food safety.
Where do you see the future of food safety evolving? Are there any emerging trends or technology that you have seen that you see coming out of the over the horizon
There are definitely some interesting cleaning technologies that are emerging, where cleaning processes and formulations are more effective and environmentally friendly. Testing for allergens becomes ever more accurate and sensitive, too.
As far as new trends go, there are some exciting projects developing for shortening the supply chain to improve the traceability of foodstuffs and reduce the carbon footprint of the food we eat. Urban fish farming is one example, where marine fish and prawns can now be farmed in large tanks next to supermarkets to guarantee freshness and reduce pollution and pressure on sea stocks.
We hope this interview with Lucinda has given you a unique insight into some of the biggest allergen-related issues facing businesses today and how they tackle these challenges. It’s been great to learn from her and be sure to look out for more interviews with Industry professionals in the future!
LiberEat - Allergen Error Detection Software
Food allergen rules and regulations continue to change and evolve. Food businesses in production, hospitality, catering, and retail must be vigilant when working with ingredients, products, and dishes containing allergens and exercise due diligence when providing ingredient and allergen information to consumers. Successful allergen management is a big part of Food Safety professionals creating a culture of care and excellence within their teams.
LiberEat offers a second line of defence for food businesses by detecting errors, allergens, and other harmful ingredients with our proprietary Allergen Detection Software. Food businesses can apply this technology directly to identify errors in allergen communications, preventing the risk of injury to consumers. Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your existing food safety processes.
LiberEat works closely with food businesses to ensure consumers are safe and healthy when consuming your produce.