Honeybuns - keeping the Gluten out of their Cookies

Emma Goss Custard makes cakes both with and without gluten in her bakery. She describes the protocols that can be set up to minimise the risk of contamination.

At Honeybuns we make a range of cakes and slices focusing predominantly on gluten and/or wheat free products. I say predominantly because we still make a limited amount of wheat-based cakes from the same site. This article is intended to provide an insight to how we prevent cross contamination in the bakery.

I began Honeybuns in 1998, making home made cakes from a tiny domestic kitchen and delivering them to delicatessens on my bicycle. Back then I had no awareness of coeliac disease. Coincidentally, I didn't rate wheat flour particularly highly as a tasty cake ingredient so I began to experiment by replacing more and more wheat flour with ground nuts and polenta.

I 'm really chuffed that most of our regular customers now accept that there is nothing ‘weird’ about gluten free recipes. They actually taste nicer because every ingredient in there is working hard to add flavour and texture. Some delicatessen customers, however, have been harder to convert wanting more time to convince their customers - but we are aiming to cease production on all wheat flour based products by Christmas 2004. We already use gluten free baking powder in everything anyway to avoid any possible mix ups as it is impossible to visually distinguish between regular and gluten free baking powders.

But while we are still producing wheat and gluten free products on the same site it is vital that we remain vigilant about the possibility of cross contamination. I have mapped out our procedures and processes in the order that our work ‘flows’. We call each process a ‘flow stage’ which reminds everybody in the bakery that every action taken has an impact further down the line. It makes us all think consciously about what we are doing, how we are doing it and why.

Incoming Goods
Incoming goods is the most vital stage of all. Without reliable traceability and filtration of incorrect or faulty goods, all subsequent flow stages are a waste of time. We have two people who take responsibility for incoming goods. All goods are purchased from approved suppliers who have completed our self- audit questionnaire satisfactorily. We also visit as many suppliers in a year as we can.

With the gluten free ingredients that we buy in, it's especially important to check that the outer packaging is intact and has not been tampered with. Any suspect packaging is sent back with the delivery driver. All ingredients are then checked off against the ingredient specification sheets. For example, if the ground almonds delivered are American and the specification sheet states Spanish the delivery will not be accepted. With nuts it is especially important to check that they are labelled as ‘re-cleaned’ (sieved and cleaned twice).

Once ingredients are checked and accepted they are given a batch number which incorporates the date the goods arrive. For example, polenta delivered on October 1st will be batched POL011004. This batch number enables us to trace the ingredient right the way through to the ‘goods out’ flow stage.

In our dry goods store pallets are set aside for oats and wheat flour with ‘contains gluten’ posters displayed above the pallets.We have found extra labelling and signage reinforces the gluten free message and slows people down.Our staff have to read the reminders before picking ingredients out.

Inside the Bakery
From storage the ingredients move onto the decanting stage where they are removed from their original packaging and placed in plastic lidded containers. All gluten free ingredients go in blue containers. The batch number and best before date from the outer packaging is transferred onto a label on the tub. We do not allow any cardboard into the bakery. (Our new staff are often puzzled by this but we cannot risk any cardboard finding its way into the product - and when you consider how many dirty hands have handled a box would you want to touch it!)


Colour Coding
Although all of our chocolate, nuts and dried fruits are gluten free, we divide some into blue gluten free tubs with blue gluten free scoops and the rest into ‘regular’ tubs.

We have a gluten free section at one end of the bakery where all the weighing and mixing is done. By having a blue tub of chocolate with a blue scoop in it purely for gluten free cake, there is no danger of the chocolate from the ‘regular’ end of the bakery drifting into the gluten free area.

The Honeybuns' ‘Blue rule’ means that when gluten free production is going on, all staff need to be wearing blue plastic aprons over their white coats, all utensils have to carry a blue tag and all cakes in progress need to be covered with blue plastic trolley covers. Blue disposable J cloths are used to clean down on gluten free days. We use green cloths for general cleaning only and red cloths when cleaning up after raw eggs have been used.

The basic logic is that by colour coding things, staff can monitor their colleagues and see at a glance that the correct ingredients and utensils are being used. This is especially helpful when we have new trainees in the bakery. Daft as it sounds we have found that by asking people to pop a blue apron on it makes them slow down and think about the need to be ultra careful.

‘Gluten Free’ Days
As well as using different parts of the bakery we bake gluten free and regular cake on different days.

Cleaning Down
Prior to gluten free production we clean down and hot water rinse all surfaces, tiling and equipment. This is an extra clean as the bakery is sluiced and sanitised each evening as well. We have a gluten free only mixer and cookie machine which are also hot water rinsed in case of any air born gluten particles. Covering all gluten free equipment with blue plastic when not in use further controls potential aerial contamination.

On the paperwork and traceability side of things all bakers need to fill in a baking schedule which covers quality assurance and food safety checks. All products are checked by two people in their raw, par baked and fully baked stages. These checks are recorded on the baking schedule which is separated into non gluten and gluten free products.

We are a small, hands on craft bakery, not a factory. We can therefore tell any customer who made their cake on which day and what batch number it has. For example, Charlotte is one of our senior bakers and she specialises in milk chocolate brownies. The label on a finished case of milk chocolate brownies will carry a batch code, for example MCB0007. If somebody phones up and reports a piece of nutshell in a product we can trace back to who made the products and filled in the nut check form as well as going back to incoming goods and tracing the batch number and supplier of the walnuts.

The batch number follows the cake throughout the whole process from incoming ingredients to baking to the product on the pallet and into the lorry.

Similar controls are in place in the packing room.

A complete set of blue tagged utensils are kept in separate gluten free lidded containers and packers have to wear blue aprons. Gluten free labels are filed separately to regular labels. Before products are sealed in boxes they are checked and signed off by two different people. The pallets are also checked and signed off on the dispatch sheet.

We have just started taking digital photographs displaying box labels so that if we then get a query later about labelling we can check if it was done correctly. Each box contains a packing slip which reads: This box has been hand packed specially for you by:……… and customers seem to really like the fact that we are small enough to know this and that it has not been done by a robot. We have also built in product recall procedures should things go wrong.

We believe the most important control is training our staff to be interested and proud of what they produce.

Staff are formally introduced to the concept of gluten free at interview. They are then asked questions on their induction day, at their first review and subsequent 6 week reviews. We carry out 2 gluten free quizzes per annum with a bottle of fizzy (not vintage) going to the most accurately completed one!

We have two appointed trainers in the bakery who are fully up to speed on cross contamination and can guide their colleagues. We also operate a mentoring system, which ensures novice bakers are never on their own. Bearing in mind our current staff is 17 including 3 in the office, we think this is a pretty good trainer to pupil ratio.
We are currently training two of our senior packers to train people. It will take 3 months to fully train a novice and a year or more to train a baker.

A Gluten Free Future
We are very much looking forward to a wheat free 2005 and in the meantime we'll be monitoring and tweaking our controls. As with all aspects of food safety, we cannot eliminate the risk of something going wrong but we can take sensible steps to minimise the risk as much as possible.

Even when we do become wheat free we will need to keep monitoring ‘hot’ issues such as the purity of our polenta. We need written assurance wherever possible that the maize that polenta is derived from is not growing next to wheat. Similar issues face those gluten free food producers who use rice flour. The problem is compounded as labelling legislation is rightly tightened up. The knock on effect is that no one is willing to state that anything is totally free of anything. We will, therefore keep on controlling risks as thoroughly as we can.

For more information contact www.honeybuns.co.uk 01963 23597

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First Published in 2004