The NHS is spending more than £20 for a loaf of gluten-free bread, 10 times more than the £2 charged for a standard small (400g) gluten-free loaf in Sainsbury’s.
Gluten provokes painful inflammation of the bowel in people who have an immune-response allergy to the protein, found in wheat, rye and barley products. The condition is known as Coeliac Disease.
In the past, gluten-free products were difficult and costly to get hold of, and many people obtained them via prescription. They are now commonly found on supermarket shelves and their cost has come down.
While they cost more than standard versions, typically up to twice as much, the NHS appears to be paying well over the odds.
Darren Millar, the Conservative shadow minister for health in the Welsh Assembly, found out that the NHS in Wales paid £984,185 for 47,684 gluten-free loaves last year — or £20.64 a loaf. In an answer to a question he put to the assembly, he was also told that packets of gluten-free pasta were costing the NHS £11.54 per bag. Similar packs cost £2 in supermarkets.
Ginger snap biscuits cost £10.07, compared with £2.35 in the shops, and wheat-free gravy mix £15.21, rather than £2.59.
Mr Millar said: “It’s currently costing the NHS 10 times more for this bread than the price in a supermarket.
“Many taxpayers will question why they are also footing the bill for hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of snacks such as biscuits and cakes.”
“Foods of this type have become much more widely available and yet the number of prescriptions has risen.”
A spokesman for the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “It smacks of incompetence that the Welsh NHS is paying so much more than they are available for in the shops.
“This doesn’t look like taxpayers are getting value for money.”
Dr David Bailey, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Wales, added: “It makes little sense for gluten-free foods to be prescribed.”
In 2010, the NHS in Wales, which serves a population of three million, spent just over £2 million on gluten-free products.
Given that the population of Britain is some 20 times that, it is likely that the overall NHS bill stands at £40 million, although in England some patients pay prescription charges.
Mr Millar commented: “That’s a heck of a sum of money. When cash is short, should we really be spending public money on such things? I think not.”
Sarah Sleet, chief executive of the charity Coeliac UK, said the high costs resulted from bureaucratic supply chains in the NHS.
She called for greater efficiency but said such items should still be available on prescription for sufferers.
“It’s in the interest of the NHS to keep people with coeliac healthy, and prescriptions play an important role in this,” she said.
A spokesman for Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh health minister, said: “Work is now under way to identify savings that can be made in reducing the number of gluten-free products prescribed by the NHS.”