Better food safety benefits gluten-free community

I follow food news pretty closely, mainly because I am interested in writing about anything related to the gluten-free diet for readers of Gluten-Free Living magazine and this blog.

Over the years, I’ve come to trust a number of others with a specialized interest and expertise in the foods we eat and the laws that regulate them. Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules, an Eater’s Manual, is often a voice of reason when it comes to food. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest has pit bull jaws when it comes to exposing false food claims and pushing for healthier eating.

So I paid attention to what both had to say about food safety reform legislation passed by the Senate earlier this week. (Meanwhile, I tuned out the rants of Glenn Beck and the humor of Jon Stewart on the subject.)

Pollan, writing an op-ed piece for the New York Times, called the bill the “best opportunity in a generation to improve the safety of the American food supply.” Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, said “everyone who eats will benefit from this historic legislation.”

In what is being called a sweeping overhaul of food safety regulation, the Senate version of the bill would result in more inspections of large-scale, high-risk food processing facilities. Now, a plant might get a visit from an inspector only every five to ten years as an unsuspecting public found out in August when 1,500 people were sickened by salmonella-contaminated eggs.

Another important change would give the FDA the authority to order a recall when a food is tainted. Now the FDA can only ask a food company to voluntarily recall foods and, amazingly, some companies drag their feet even when it’s clear a food poses a health risk to consumers.

“The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill,” Pollan wrote in the New York Times.
Another provision would require every food processing facility to have a safety plan and to run tests to show the plan is working. The bill also set standards for the safety of produce and imported foods.

While these improvements are not specific to gluten-free foods, the gluten-free community would benefit in a few ways.  Quick and forceful removal of tainted products from the food supply is good for everyone. Three contaminated foods that made people sick in the past year – eggs, spinach and pistachios – could all be eaten by someone who is gluten free.

And I would assume gluten-free processors would have to have safety plans just like any other company. (The bill does propose exempting food makers with less than $500,000 in sales who sell most of their food locally and some gluten-free companies would be in that category.)

Another possible, though still theoretical, benefit to gluten-free consumers could come when the FDA finalizes rules for foods labeled gluten free. The FDA has proposed requiring all gluten-free foods to test to less than 20 parts per million of gluten. Some who have been watching the tortuous path of the definition through numerous FDA studies and reviews have wondered all along exactly how the agency will enforce the 20 ppm standard when and if it is approved.

The food safety legislation could create a model for how to meaningfully and regularly inspect food plants. This model could be used to make sure companies that use the labels are held to the gluten-free rules.

Of course the food safety legislation has a few hurdles of its own to clear before it becomes law. The House passed its own bill last year. Now the two bodies have to hash out a final version and it looks like a procedural error in the Senate bill may slow things down.

Still, let’s hope they move quickly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 5,000 people die from food borne illnesses every year.
While food safety for those who are gluten-free has additional layers, we are just as vulnerable as anyone else when it comes to the kind of dangers tainted foods present.