Aussie oats fight for right to wear gluten-free label

Liz Wells, April 9, 2021

GK Gluten Free Foods managing director Kylie Martin sells her GF Oats range online and through retail outlets in Australia and New Zealand. Photo: Liz Wells

A PUSH is on to get oats grown and handled in Australia under special conditions labelled as gluten free.

Driving it is GK Gluten Free Foods managing director, Kylie Martin, who says food-labelling laws in Australia and New Zealand are out of whack with those in the rest of the world.

This anomaly locks out Australian farmers wishing to supply the niche domestic and potential export markets, and leaves businesses like GK Gluten Free Foods with no choice but to import product to satisfy growing Australian demand.

Ms Martin is hopeful the findings of a study now being conducted at Monash University and funded by Coeliac Australia will allow oats that are uncontaminated from gluten to wear the gluten-free label. in line with the rest of the world.

GK Gluten Free Foods is working with the small business ombudsman to revisit the tough labelling laws, and help lobby Food Standards Australia & NZ to bring them into line with jurisdictions like the European Union and the United States.

“This which will greatly assist the confusion for customers here in Australia and New Zealand around the way GF Oats is currently labelled.

Strong sales smooth rocky road

Ms Martin stepped into the world of food marketing in 2007 to support her family’s health and food requirements by launching the Brighterlife Wheatfree Foods range of cake and bread mixes and flour.

In 2009, after watching oats in the US gain a certification for gluten free oats, she imported her first pallet to test the market.

Customer demand saw her sell the pre-mix flour brand to concentrate on marketing certified gluten-free oats grown in North America and steamed, rolled and packaged by GF Harvest, a company started in Wyoming by coeliac Forrest Smith who was looking for a gluten-free grain to add to the family diet.

“Our supply chain in Australia is contaminated with gluten from wheat, barley and rye, and I couldn’t find oats in Australia outside that supply chain.”

Ms Martin’s first order with GF Harvest was for one pallet carrying 750 kilograms.

“It had barely reached the port of Brisbane when I found out I couldn’t sell it with a gluten-free label.”

Through her online community, Ms Martin managed to sell that first consignment within 12 months, and her orders have been getting bigger ever since.

GK Gluten Free Foods is now selling a total of 150 tonnes per year through its online portal, health-food stores, IGA’s Australian network and Woolworths and Countdown New Zealand.

GF OK in trademark

The GF in the GF Oats label is the brainchild of Ms Martin.

It has been trademarked, and stands for “gloriously free”.

Ms Martin arrived at the GF Oats name as an alternative to a low-gluten label, which the oats can legally carry in Australia and New Zealand.

“That low-gluten label doesn’t get the message across about them being safe to eat for just about everyone.

“‘Gloriously free’ is the best we can do to get the message across to people about our oats being uncontaminated by gluten in the supply chain.”

Ms Martin said the market for GF oats existed largely in the gluten-intolerant community.

”It’s predominantly people who are intolerant to gluten, not allergic to it, that are buying 150t of our oats a year.”

Common oats, avena sativa, contain water-insoluble storage protein in the form of avenin, while the water-insoluble storage proteins collectively known as gluten are gliadin in wheat, hordein in barley and secalin in rye.

Indicative studies have shown that one in 100 coeliacs have an immune response to avenin, and GF Oats’ website does not state its products are safe for coeliacs to eat.

“It is important to note that the current labelling laws are based on an outdated study where contaminated oats was sourced.”

It does refer readers to the Coeliac Australia website, which in turn advises coeliacs to undertake testing to ensure they can eat oats uncontaminated by gluten before they introduce them to their diets.

Questions answered

Ms Martin has been called upon to justify the GF Oats brand name and associated wording by Queensland Health.

Following a complaint made in 2017 that GF Oats’ branding breached a section of the Australian Food Code, Ms Martin has also fronted Australia’s Advertising Standards Board.

The case was dismissed.

Ms Martin has since lodged a claim of her own with the federal Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman to look at why GF Oats cannot be labelled as gluten free in Australia and New Zealand.

“Apart from Australia and New Zealand, all the rest of the world is in line on this.

“It’s been a long hard haul, and because I can’t market my oats as gluten free, I can’t sell them to manufacturers of gluten-free products like muesli.

“I could triple or quadruple our sales if we could use the gluten-free label.

“It’s a value-add for Australian farmers that they can’t access in Australia, and if they could, we could be selling more domestically, and looking at export markets like Singapore and Vietnam.”

Ms Martin is also speaking with the Food Council of Australia about how to make the gluten-free label available to oats which pass the test.

“In the US, it’s a huge growing market, and consumers absolutely love it.

“The taste and texture of oats is so beautiful.”

Path for farmers

Ms Martin grew up on a cattle and grain property at Springsure in Central Queensland, and farming is dear to her heart.

“My bigger dream is to have farmers grow it here.”

She said markets for GF Oats needed to be found prior to contracting Australian growers to produce oats outside the gluten-contaminated supply chain.

“You’ve got to have a whole strategy; if a farmer’s going to grow you 200t, you have to have a market for that.

“We’re ready to take that next step now.

She is currently working with one grower in Western Australia to come on board as GF Oats’ first Australian supplier, and is in preliminary discussions with farmers in Queensland, Victoria and southern New South Wales.

“It’s volunteer wheat seeds in the crop that are the danger to gluten contamination on farm.”

Ms Martin said potential Australian suppliers would need to ensure their paddocks were free from wheat, barley and rye for a minimum three years prior to planting, and is working with the Colere Group consultancy to look at assuring production on farm and in the supply chain.

Colere Group’s managing director Paul Meibusch said prospective Australian suppliers of GF Oats would be growing them in a farming system without wheat, barley and rye.

“Those growers could look at rotations with non-gluten crops like canola, rice, pulses, and maybe cotton,” he said.

He said growing high-quality milling oats that could be out-turned with virtually no detectable gluten was a challenge few farmers would take on.

“We’re talking no traces of gluten in your equipment: harvester, field bins, silos, the lot.”

Along with advice from Colere Group, Ms Martin is using GF Harvest’s template for growers to guide potential Australian suppliers.

The imported oats arrive in 50-pound bags, and are downpacked by Toowoomba’s Endeavour Foundation, a leading employer of people living with an intellectual disability.

If Australian oats supplies were added, GK Gluten Free Foods will expand into toll processing, or run its own plant, to ensure Australian product meets the standards set by GF Harvest.

Flavour matters

Mr Meibusch said oat milk as well as muesli and granola could well develop into a major market for oats uncontaminated by gluten.

“I think oat milk is going to be big.”

Oats contain fibre which diets that bypass cereals often lack, and they also have a complex flavour.

“We could be talking about texture and mouth-feel of oats in the way that we talk about barley in the making of beer.”

Ms Martins is already into value-adding the value-added by making lines including Anzac biscuits and mixes and an Anzac-flavoured biscuit crumble.

Mr Meibusch, who has a coeliac son and knows all about the challenges of gluten-free cooking, is a fan.

“Kylie made a prototype batch of Anzac biscuit mix that wouldn’t shape into biscuits, so she ran it through a machine and turned it into Anzac-flavoured biscuit base.

“I’ve used it myself and it’s great.

“She took something that didn’t work out the way she thought it would, and turned it into something different that does work.

“That’s a very Kylie thing to do.”

Complex market

Mr Meibusch said Australia’s oat-processing capacity was “pretty full” at around 300,000t, and Australian exports of processed oats peaked last year at 137,000t.

WA is Australia’s biggest oat-producing state by far, and last year grew around 650,000t, of which 265,000t was exported.

ABARES put Australia’s 2020 oat crop at 1.7 million tonnes, up from a drought-hit 860,000t in 2019.

The Pepsico-owned Quaker Oats plant at Forrestfield in WA, Nestle’s Uncle Toby’s at Wahgunyah in Victoria, Unigrain in Geelong and Smeaton in Victoria and Wagin in WA, and CBH Group’s Blue Lake Milling at Bordertown in South Australia are the major processors.

Red Tractor Foods is another buyer, processor and marketer of Australian oats for retail.

GF Oats is currently Australia’s only packager and marketer of gluten-free oats.



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