'Poisonous' placement of gluten-free flours in supermarkets sparks outrage

Concerned coeliacs are appealing for change from New Zealand supermarkets over the "dangerous" placement of gluten-free flours on shelves, saying it's hazardous and stops them from buying the product.

A coeliac shopper approached Newshub on Tuesday with a photo of shelves at Ponsonby Countdown, pointing out the gluten-free flour sat right beside the regular flour.

In the photo, bags of Countdown-branded "Free From Gluten" flours can lean against Macro brand "Plain flour", while bags of Edmonds gluten-free flours are positioned at the bottom of the shelving.

'Poisonous' placement of gluten-free flours in supermarkets sparks outrage
Photo credit: Supplied.

"That's bad, because flour puffs everywhere, contaminating everything near it," the shopper told Newshub, asking to remain anonymous.

"I'd compare it to peanuts - you'd never risk customers' health by stacking nuts next to 'nut free' products, so why is this okay?

"I've emailed about it and they sent me some tepid answer."

According to the Coeliac New Zealand website, coeliac disease is a permanent, autoimmune disorder which causes a reaction to gluten, found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. When a coeliac ingests gluten, their body mounts an immune response which attacks the small intestine.

This can be both incredibly painful and potentially deadly.     

The website notes that although coeliac disease cannot be cured, it can be controlled with a strict, life-long gluten-free diet.

It is currently estimated that 60,000 to 70,000 New Zealanders have coeliac disease (1 in 70); however, up to 80 percent of those are unaware they have the condition.

A Countdown spokesperson told Newshub on Tuesday they intend to review the placement of gluten-free flour.

"Overwhelmingly when asked, our customers prefer to find similar products close together so they can view and shop an entire category," she said.

"However, we completely understand how the placement of gluten-free flour next to plain flour may concern some customers and we'll review this."

That will be welcome news to members of the Coeliac Disease New Zealand Facebook page, many of whom offered a swift response when asked about shelf placement.

"What is the point of paying so much more for gluten-free, if it is contaminated before you even pay for it? Sadly, there is a lack of education when it comes to coeliacs, with many people not realising it is an auto-immune disease," one commenter wrote.

'Poisonous' placement of gluten-free flours in supermarkets sparks outrage
Photo credit: Supplied.

"It has stopped me from buying with this exact scenario at Countdown. There is NO way would I bring that into my house after I have scrubbed my cupboards, thrown away my toaster, cutting boards and removed all trace possible," wrote another.

"Some can have instant and serious reactions that would put them in hospital. It is POISONOUS to us."

'Poisonous' placement of gluten-free flours in supermarkets sparks outrage
Photo credit: Facebook.

Mother Shannon Slade contacted Newshub directly, saying this was a topic she was "passionate about".

"My daughter has severe coeliac disease - in fact, she almost died from it when she was two years old," she wrote.

"[Gluten-free] flour should 100 percent be nowhere near normal flour. A tiny crumb can cause internal damage, so this is hugely concerning for me.

"The only way I would feel slightly better about this is if it were sitting above the normal flour - but even so, it's likely they're placing them on shelf together, so you wonder how safe that really is."

Other commenters said they may purchase the gluten-free flour, even if it is stacked beside flour containing gluten.  

"I probably would as they are sealed and as long as it's in its packaging, I could wipe it down if needed," one said.

"If I could see spilt flour around, then there's no way in hell would I buy it. Otherwise, I would probably suck it up. There's limited options so it's not like we have much choice, and while the bags aren't really air-tight, they are sealed," said another.

Multiple commenters said they've had similar experiences at their local Pak'n'Saves.

However, action has been taken in some supermarkets.

One commenter applauded the actions of Browns Bay Countdown manager Ian Samu, saying when she pointed out the same problem, he was "absolutely amazing".

"He immediately got staff to remove all the non-gluten-free flour and put them on a different stand, removed the burst bags and got it all cleaned up," she wrote.

"He asked me to email him info on Coeliac Disease and why cross contamination was so dangerous so that he could forward to Countdown head office."

Countdown does offer a gluten-free aisle of products in their supermarkets, as well as on the online shopping section of their website.