Royal Numico sells gluten-free food division

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food intolerance, Allergy

Royal Numico has sold its Coeliac business for an undisclosed
amount to Italian firm Dr Schar.

The sale of the division, which provides gluten-free nutrition, should be completed before year-end.

The divestiture is one consequence of a strategic evaluation carried out by Numico in August 2006. The Dutch group said that the decision to exit the sector was driven primarily by an assessment of the companys current competitive position in this area and its fit within the broader clinical nutrition portfolio.

Dr Schar is one of Europe's leading firms in the gluten-free food sector. The acquisition should help the business to capitalise on growing demand for gluten-free products. Indeed, the "free-from"​ food market has been enjoying sales growth of over 300 per cent in the UK alone since 2000, according to market analyst Mintel.

Coeliac disease, caused by an intolerance to gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye and barley, is said to affect an average of one in 300 people in Europe and the US. In Germany the figure is higher at one in 200, while the UK reports a figure of one in 100.

Food intolerance and food allergies appear to be a growing problem across Europe. True food allergy is comparatively rare, affecting perhaps eight per cent of children and four per cent of adults according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations.

It is a quick immune system-mediated reaction to the proteins in a few foods such as milk or nuts and can be confirmed by a laboratory test.

Organisations such as the Food Intolerance Network argue on the other hand that food intolerance is more common. Reactions are a dose-related and typically delayed response to artificial or natural chemicals in foods, and many foods may be involved with a bewildering range of symptoms.

As there are no scientifically proven laboratory tests, diagnosis is through the use of an elimination diet with challenges.

Regulators have taken action. Since November last year, EU food firms have been required to declare on labels whether a product contains potential food allergens.

The mandatory inclusion on food labels of the most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives covers cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soybeans, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.

Growing consumer awareness of food intolerance and allergies has also led to great deal of research. Dr. Ronald van Ree from the University of Amsterdam told attendees at the recent BA Festival of Science in England that advances in biotechnology have identified the specific molecules in foods that induce food allergies.

Such knowledge could lead to genetic engineering techniques to change these molecules so that they no longer cause an allergic response, said van Ree, and consign food allergies to the history books.

The sale of Numico's Coeliac division follows the publication of strong financial results for the first nine months of2006. Total sales were up 11.6 per cent; with the EBITA margin was up 19.1 per cent.

"Based on our performance to date, we envisage that total sales growth for the year will be around 12 per cent with an EBITA margin of 18.75 per cent,"​ said CEO Jan Bennink.

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