Gluten-free bakeries are calling on the NHS to investigate charges added to prescription gluten-free bread by whole-salers, after a spate of media reports criticised the cost of such products to taxpayers.

Wholesalers have been known to charge pharmacies anywhere between £20-60 per prescription because they say gluten-free products qualify as ’special’ products under NHS sourcing rules and require extra administration and handling. Pharmacies are legitimately allowed to claim these charges back from the NHS.

The practice has led to a number of newspaper reports claiming that the NHS in Wales pays, on average, £32 for each gluten-free loaf bought on prescription, although this was dismissed as incorrect by Welsh Health Minister Lesley Griffiths, who said the real figure was just £2.82 per loaf.

At the same time, Primary Care Trusts in the south east have become so concerned by the issue that they have started to limit the range of products that can be prescribed by GPs in an effort to reduce costs.

The British Specialist Nutrition Association, which represents two of the largest prescription gluten-free bakers Juvela and Glutafin, said the issue needed to be properly investigated. "Our members are being tarnished by the press when they have done nothing wrong. It is the wholesalers that are adding these charges," said director general Roger Clarke. "We need to know how many transactions are affected by these charges, whether PCTs are just using it as an excuse to reduce costs and why the NHS allows pharmacies to be reimbursed."

Leading gluten-free bread brand Genius supplies pharmacies directly with product, thereby cutting out wholesaler charges, but the company said that some pharmacies prefer to buy from wholesalers. "Genius is frustrated that, despite its efforts to provide a cost-effective service to the NHS and offer affordable fresh gluten-free bread available on prescription, in some instances its products are subject to this additional charge, which is out of its control," said the company in a statement.

Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK, added: "We have argued for some time that the issue of additional charges needs to be investigated at a national level to hold some in the NHS supply chain to account. Patients do not want the NHS to pay more than they should for their prescriptions and want a fairer, more transparent system. We are talking to politicians and the NHS to get the facts across."