Gluten-Free Grains Get a Going Over

It’s been a tough month for gluten-free grains.

First came a study that showed some naturally gluten-free grains are cross contaminated by gluten. (You can read about that in a previous blog.)

Now a local CBS news report has raised questions about sanitary conditions at a gluten-free food company in Iowa.

The TV report shows Nu World Foods in Earlville processing grain in a small facility that has no running water or functional bathroom. Anonymous employees say they had to use large bottles of water to fill the toilet tank in order to flush it. In addition, a snow plow is shown in the facility, parked near food processing equipment.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the report, having interviewed the owners of the company, which also runs Nu Word Amaranth, several years ago for a story about amaranth as healthy addition to the gluten-free diet.

I’ve spent the last few days trying to understand exactly what was being processed in Nu World’s Earlville plant and what, if any, risk products made there might pose to gluten-free consumers who buy them.

The company both makes it own brand name products and processes foods for other gluten-free companies.

Here are some facts.

The Earlville plant was operating without a license. This caused an inspector from the Iowa Department of Inspections and Approvals who visited the facility after being contacted by the news station to post a closure notice.

From the state’s point of view, the lack of a license was a bigger problem than the absence of running water.

But for consumers who saw the television report, the conditions of the bathroom caused the most concern. No one likes the thought that food they buy might have been handled by an employee who did not have running water to wash his or her hands.

While there was bottled water available for hand-washing, Susan Walters-Flood, Nu World president, said she understands consumer reaction to the news report.

But she said the report did not accurately portray how the company is run.

“For us, gluten free is not a passing trend,” Walters-Flood said. “Since 1983, we have delivered high quality food in full compliance with all standards for safe and quality foods.”

Almost all of Nu World’s food processing takes place in a newer 30,000 square-foot plant in nearby Dyersville, Walters-Flood said. In fact, the company was in the process of moving all equipment and operations from Earlville to Dyersville when this story broke.

Nu World had expected the move to go a lot faster so the company did not renew the operating license for the Earlville plant when it expired. Although the move took longer than expected and some grain continued to be processed there, no one at the company remembered that the operating license had been allowed to lapse, according to Walters-Flood.

Meanwhile, a plumbing pipe broke over the winter when the ground was frozen and the company never took steps to fix it, again anticipating that the plant would soon be shut down.

Whatever the technicalities and reasons, it’s pretty clear to everyone that Nu World should not have been making anything in the unlicensed Earlville plant.

“We were clearly incorrect in not renewing the license,” Walters-Flood said.

But does that mean you should be worried eating the company’s products?

I think the answer is no. Here’s why.

Nu World has permanently closed the Earlville plant.

The grain that was processed there was always sent on to the Dyersville plant where it was tested for quality and contamination both as an ingredient and as part of any final food product. No product was packaged and sold directly from the Earlville plant.

David Werning, public information officer for the Iowa inspections department, said there was no packing equipment and no evidence of product distribution in Earlville.

When the department inspected the Dyersville plant last week no problems were found, he said. All three dozens samples of raw material and finished product taken from the plant were found to be free of the contaminants the state tested for.

Nu World has a good track record for being in compliance with state regulations and whenever minor issues have been brought to the company’s attention they have quickly been resolved, Werning said.

In addition, the American Baking Institute, which audits and inspects food processing facilities, and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, which gives kosher certification, have inspected the plant.

Nu World makes products for other companies, including Jules Gluten Free flour and baking mixes, that are certified by the Gluten Intolerance Group. GIG has strict requirements for certification, including plant inspection.

Jules Shepard, founder of Jules Gluten Free, stood behind Nu World in comments she posted to a celiac disease website. She said her company’s chief executive officer recently visited the Dyersville plant.

“The visit confirmed our complete confidence in the facility and the products processed there,” Shepard said, noting that none of the ingredients in her products were made in Earlville.

Nu World tests its products at multiple stages of production and periodically has its test results verified by an outside lab, according to Walters-Flood.

I weighed all these factors against the facts and allegations in the television report and concluded I would still feel safe eating a Nu World product.

I don’t really understand why a company that seems committed to making quality gluten-free products would let something as important as an operating license go.

Nor do I like the fact that a decent restroom was not provided for employees even if they worked in the plant only occasionally.

But I don’t think there is enough evidence of risk or wrong doing for the gluten-free community to flush Nu World and all amaranth products down the toilet. Although Nu World processes a variety of grains in doing contract work for other brands, the company is most closely associated with amaranth. I read one comment on the Internet from someone who said the news story made they glad they never got into amaranth.

I hope that’s not a widespread reaction. Amaranth is a healthy, gluten-free whole grain that Nu World Amaranth was instrumental in introducing to US consumers.

Given that tests showed no problem with any product made by Nu World, I don’t think the gluten-free community would want to undo that hard work on the basis of this one slip up.

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  • I can entirely understand allowing a license to lapse in light of a move. Things like that happen. I have a much harder time justifying not fixing the plumbing to at least provide running water. But I agree with you that it’s probably not reason to write Nu World off completely. Thanks for providing a different perspective – things get so blown out of proportion on news broadcasts…